Data Centers Exacerbate Droughts

Published · Jun 23, 2021

Concerns are rising about data centers globally causing water shortages amid summer droughts. The struggle is going down between conservation experts, activists, and local communities on one side and expanding tech companies on the other.

It doesn’t help that 2020 and 2021 led to increased use of internet services. Employees working from home meant a larger need for VPN services and VoIP teleconferencing software like Zoom. The lockdown also caused the rise of streaming services like Netflix and online gaming, which fueled the need for game hosting servers.

Infrastructure requirements soared all around the world. Synergy Research now reports 600 hyperscale data centers, 40% of which are in the US.

Such massive facilities are primarily used by public cloud hosting providers to offer near-infinite scaling to all kinds of companies that need powerful and reliable infrastructure.

Of course, these aren’t the only types of facilities. Of particular note are colocation data centers. These are typically smaller, as they let other companies host their own dedicated servers on their premises.

However, they can be relatively resource-intensive, as they host a much wider variety of devices.

Data Center Cooling Depleting Local Water Supplies

The main issue is that data centers are usually very water-expensive. Most of them rely on evaporative cooling, which can consume 3-5 million gallons per day for a single data center.

The trouble really begins when companies build their facilities in arid areas. Low costs and easy access to carbon-free energy sources like solar and wind power make them attractive locations.

Unfortunately, water is a secondary concern for companies, as it is much less costly than electricity. It’s a big dilemma for people living in dry areas, as they have to choose between compromising a dwindling local supply and attracting tech companies.

One such location is Mesa, Arizona. It is already home to seven large data centers, some owned by Google and Apple.

Despite pushback, Mesa’s city council recently approved a new large data center, presumed to be used as a cloud storage facility by Facebook. It is an $800 million project that would ultimately require 1.7 million gallons of water per day.

Vice Mayor Jenn Duff, the only council member to vote against the project, warns about the conservation of the water supply.

The Arizona supply is already at record lows, which might lead to federal restrictions as soon as 2022 and the eventual depletion of local groundwater.

Tech Companies Attempting to Decrease Water Waste

In all fairness, water expenditure by individual facilities has decreased over the years.

Some data centers are already using alternative cooling methods. For instance, Green Mountain already uses fjord water in Norway. Google is experimenting with seawater in Finland and canal water in Belgium.

Some facilities by Google are also attempting to use recycled wastewater in Georgia. Microsoft also promises to turn water positive till 2030, while other large data center operators did not comment.

However, experts warn that it will be some time before US companies transfer to more sustainable cooling models. They are more likely to wait until they have to cycle out old equipment to make changes—not great news for Mesa that is just now getting two brand-new data centers.

It is to be seen how the new data center expansions will play out.

Countries like Singapore have already placed restrictions on building such facilities, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see more arid states pass legislation on the matter.

Branko Krstic
Branko Krstic

Branko is a round-the-clock tech geek and loving it. His ideal vacation destination is the Akihabara District (or really any place he can take his computer). If there’s a server out there, count on him to find out what it’s made of… and tell you all about it.