Data centers are popping up everywhere, and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. As demand for online services and Internet consumption overall continues to rise, so will our reliance on data centers. However, this could be a bit of a problem for the environment if left unchecked.
Happily, all data center operators are investing a lot of time, effort and money into the energy efficiency of their facilities. They are also mindful of the environmental impact of the data centers in other areas: like the consumption of water. Yes, data centers love and need water as much as everything else on the planet.
But let’s be honest. Water has more important uses, like for example, supporting every living, breathing being on Earth. So, each use of water must be done in a responsible way, and ensure it does not take away from the ecological systems. This is why optimizing water consumption in data centers has been a big topic in the industry for a while. Let’s check out why water is so important for data centers and the latest trends and steps being taken in order to improve efficiency and sustainability.
Cooling is vital
Every computing device generates heat. The heavier the computing load, the more electricity is needed, and all of this generates heat in the CPU and other components. In order to ensure proper operational state of the device and overall safety, proper cooling is key. And while that’s relatively easy for modern consumer devices, it’s still a very big and complex challenge for data centers. A challenge that is only going to get more and more difficult as data center usage increases and we rely on them for more and more tasks.
So, more complex cooling systems are key to make sure data center equipment operates in suitable conditions. This though requires even more energy, electricity and water. As such, data centers can have quite an impact on global energy consumption and on CO2 emissions. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2020, data centers used around 1.1% of the total global electricity demand, or about 200-250 terawatt hours. As a result, all data center operators are looking for better solutions. According to a report by Persistence Market Research, the demand for liquid cooling for data centers will reach $31 billion over the next ten years.
A lot of that will be driven by better efficiency for high rack densities via liquid cooling as opposed to air-based cooling. It’s also cheaper to run in the long term, more reliable, and has a smaller footprint. All of this is going to be even more important as the use of data centers increase along with their construction. As the IEA points out, the demand for data services is rising exponentially – global Internet traffic jumped by over 40% in 2020 and hasn’t returned back to the pre-pandemic levels.
The IEA says that data center owners do indeed invest a lot of effort into efficiency, and as a result, the vast jump in data usage hasn’t translated into a similar rise of energy consumption by data centers. Virtualization is really paying off in this case and is allowing operators to do more with the same hardware, says the IEA. It also points out that the most efficient hyperscale data centers have a PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) value of ~1.1. This means that 0.1kWh is used for cooling/power provision for every 1kWh used for IT equipment.
There’s more to be done
While the IEA points out there are good results for the data center performance so far, more can and must be done. The agency is optimistic these recommendations will happen as it also benefits data center operators – energy costs make up about 20-40% of ICT companies’ operational expenditures. So, every improvement here will lead to both lower emissions and costs.
The agency recommends that ICT companies improve their data collection and sharing for their energy use. This will allow them to make better decisions and it will also help regulators in their future policy making. Another recommendation is that ICT companies continue to announce efficiency and climate targets, but also focus on measures to achieve them. In January 2021, data center operators and associations across Europe announced the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact which aims that their data centers will be fully climate-neutral by 2030.
“Data centres could become even more energy efficient, while providing flexibility to the grid. Governments can offer guidance, incentives, and standards to encourage further energy efficiency, while regulations and price signals could help incentivise demand-side flexibility”, says the IEA. It also adds that governments, grid operators and data center operators can work together to “determine how renewable energy investments can most optimally benefit the whole system as well as help meet national energy and climate targets”.
Data center operators should also think about new technologies to continue efficiency gains. Current technologies will slowly lose their gains as demand for data center services grows. Also, operators should also take note of lifecycle environmental impacts from raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, end-of-life disposal, and recycling.
Of course, those are some very broad recommendations. Most of them are quite obvious, to be honest. The results that institutions await, though, will be brought mainly by specific actions, like improving the overall water usage of each data center.
70% of the planet is water and that’s not enough
Back to the Persistence Market Research report, it notes quite obviously that data centers in warm and humid areas tend to use more water for cooling. A separate note by NBC claims that a big data center can use up to 22 million liters of water per day.
As such, there are plenty of technological advances around liquid cooling. One of them is a two-phase immersion with a higher boiling point, no fluid degeneration, and it doesn’t even need a pump. The use of cold plates and direct liquid cooling are leading the market. This approach is especially popular in North America and Europe which will lead the liquid cooling market for data centers in 2022.
Reducing water consumption is important for every data center, but it’s critical for some of them – like those situated in areas where water is already scarce. Like Arizona for example. Why would you build a water hungry facility in a place where water is at a premium? Because there are other factors that go into data center locations. Like overall weather, low-cost of power and a minimal risk of natural disasters.
83% of the state of Arizona is facing “severe drought” conditions, says the US Drought Monitor, quoted by DataCenterFrontier. Despite that, Arizona is a hotbed for data centers. Researchers at Virginia Tech note that 20% of data centers draw water from places which are already moderately or highly stressed when it comes to water availability.
“Water has been historically undervalued as a resource in part because it has been cheap for companies to purchase. While many industries have taken great leaps in reducing their electricity use and carbon footprints, they lag behind in water efficiency throughout their supply chains,” says Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment.
So, what are data center operators doing about this?
Google has pledged to be water-positive by 2030. This means it aims to replenish 120% of the water it uses acrossall its offices and data centers. The company employs a site-specific approach and tackles each challenge in accordance with the local needs. It’s also working on ways to incorporate circularity.
Microsoft also says it wants to be water-positive by 2030. “We’re tackling our water consumption in two ways: reducing our water use intensity – or the water we use per megawatt of energy used for our operations – and replenishing water in the water-stressed regions we operate. This means that by 2030, Microsoft will replenish more water than it consumes on a global basis,” says the company in its blog.
It’s not a surprise that Facebook (now Meta) has the same goal. “We will return more water to the environment than we consumed for our global operations. Reaching this ambitious goal will require a combination of water restoration efforts starting in regions that are highly water stressed, as well as technologies to increase water efficiency at our facilities.”
Meta is also building one of its larges data centers ever – an $800 million investment in Idaho will create a 90 000 square meter facility. As you can imagine, it will need a colossal amount of water, right? Virginia Tech students estimate that with conventional technologies, this data center will need almost 2.27 million liters of water per day. Happily, that will not happen. The climate in Idaho allows Meta to air-cool the data center in Kuna for more than half of the year. The company already has several projects in the US to restore water – up to 2.7 billion liters in 2020, and potentially up to 4.3 billion liters per year once all the projects are completed. Meta says on average its data centers use water 80% more efficiently than the industry average.
Moving to green energy sources is another way to reduce water usage. CyrusOne says in a blog that it already has big plans and results. “As both electrical grids and individual consumers like CyrusOne replace thermoelectric sources with wind and solar generation, the water embodied in the electricity we consume decreases dramatically. When we at CyrusOne reach our net-zero carbon target through the use of renewable energy, we will consume effectively no water for cooling at the vast majority of our facilities, since we will neither evaporate water for cooling nor use water-consuming electricity.”
The company says that at one of its facilities it expects the total water consumed in 2021 to be less than a third of the consumption in 2019. “By investing in both water-free cooling and renewables, we are progressing toward both our water-free and net zero carbon goals. Why choose “either or” when you can have both,” asks the company and it is right. Energy and water efficiency go hand in hand and must be developed together to bring the best results.
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