Data centers in the face of drought and climate risk: NPR
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Data centers are springing up around the world to manage the torrent of information from the growing network of devices embedded in people’s lives and the economy. Managing this source of digital information is big business. This also comes with hidden environmental costs.
For years, companies that operate data centers have come under scrutiny for the huge amounts of electricity they use to store and move digital information such as emails and videos. Today, the American public is beginning to realize how much water many facilities need to prevent overheating. Like cooling systems in large office buildings, water is often evaporated in data center cooling towers, leaving behind salty wastewater called blowdowns that must be treated by local utilities.
This reliance on water poses a growing risk to data centers as computing needs soar at the same time as climate change exacerbates drought. About 20% of data centers in the United States already rely on watersheds that are under moderate to high stress from drought and other factors, according to an article co-authored last year by Arman Shehabi, researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Yet relatively few companies have agreed to speak publicly about the issue due to the still limited attention it receives. Sustainalytics, which assesses risks related to environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, recently said to have reviewed 122 companies who operate data centers and found that only 16% had disclosed information about their water risk management plans.
“The reason there isn’t a lot of transparency, quite simply, [is] I think most companies don’t have a good story here,” says Kyle Myers, vice president of CyrusOne, a data center company.
The challenge comes down to a basic trade-off that enterprises face when trying to keep data centers cool, Myers says. They can either consume less water and use more electricity. Or they may use less energy and consume more water.
“Water is super cheap,” says Myers. “And so people make the financial decision that it makes sense to consume water.”
In addition to their own cooling needs, data centers rely on power plants that often require a lot of water to operate.
Repression is already emerging
In the United States, there are about 2,600 data centers, many of which are clustered around Dallas, the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, according to a report 2021 by the United States International Trade Commission.
In total, an average-sized data center uses about 300,000 gallons of water a day, or about 1,000 American homes, says Shehabi of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Their direct onsite consumption ranks data centers among the top 10 users of water in the US industrial and commercial sectors.
Water is “in the foreground [the industry’s] radar, of course,” says Todd Reeve, CEO of Business for Water Stewardship, which works with businesses on water issues.
Recently, some data center companies have faced opposition from communities and water advocates. In 2015, the city of Chandler, Arizona, placed a prescription allowing officials to deny requests for new water uses if they are not aligned with the city’s economic development plan. And in 2019, Google has agreed to limit its use of groundwater in South Carolina after a two year fight with local groups who had been concerned about the depletion of aquifers.
Companies are “developing tactics and strategies, in some cases changing their ideas and plans for where they will operate or where they will build data centers, largely because of emerging water issues,” Reeve said. However, many companies don’t talk about their business, he says, in part because “it’s a new and coming issue, [and] our knowledge of water stress is changing very quickly.”
Companies say they are looking for solutions
The effects of the worsening drought are being felt across the global economy. The rivers that serve as crucial trade routes in Europe are shrinking. Factories in China have closed to save water and electricity. And US industries that depend on water from the Colorado River could see their supplies cut off amid a decades-long drought.
“Which sector will draw the water? [is] will water be a priority? So those are the kinds of considerations I believe will be important to take into account more and more in the future,” says Kata Molnar, water expert at Sustainalytics.
Among the data center industry players ready to speak out are some of the world’s largest technology companies.
Google, Microsoft and parent Facebook Meta all said they will replenish more water than they use by 2030. Approaches being considered include working with local water utilities, better recycling water used by data centers and less water-intensive cooling methods.
“Minimizing our water consumption, being transparent with our water data and restoring water to high water stress regions are key pillars of our water stewardship program,” Meta said in a statement. . The company says most of its data centers reduce water consumption by using outside air for cooling.
In addition to using new technologies, some experts have said companies can reduce their environmental footprint by building data centers in places where water is plentiful. For now, however, real estate decisions appear to be driven primarily by customer location.
“When we choose a site, we look at the availability of electricity and we look at the water,” says Myers of CyrusOne. “But I don’t think we’re anywhere close to a world where we’re just going to settle in an area that has no [business] advantage for data centers.”
As long as this is the case, the industry will have to innovate to get out of a problem that is only getting worse. Over the next decade, says Myers, “water is going to be king.”
The Business for Water Stewardship prefect insists companies are preparing accordingly, albeit behind the scenes in many cases.
“I think there’s more to it than meets the eye,” Reeve says. “There’s a lot of innovation in there that just isn’t fully disclosed or publicly available.”