Groundwater for Google

Are thirsty data centers taking more than their share?

Laura_Sanchez_Blog

Data centers use water for cooling hot servers and electrical equipmentan Olympic-sized swimming pool every two days, in fact, according to Data Center Dynamics.  

Air exiting electrical equipment is cooled by passing though an air/liquid heat exchanger. The liquid coolant picks up heat from the exchanger on its way to cooling towers, where water helps remove heat from the coolant.  A significant amount of water is lost through evaporation and blow-down, or system purges.

According to the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, data centers consumed roughly 165 billion gallons in 2014. And as the internet expands, data centers use an increasing amount of water for cooling and electricity generation. The Lab estimates that by 2020, annual data center water use could rise to about 174 billion gallons.

This is particularly significant in water-scarce environments where water withdrawals and rights can cause contention. Several major tech companies operate data centers in arid, water-challenged parts of the country. There are 800 data centers in California. eBay has a data center in Salt Lake City. Microsoft has one in San Antonio. These companies bring jobs and economic opportunities to communities that help them thrive. But they also place water-challenged cities in a compromising position in which they must appease tech companies while also protecting their natural resources.

Google has a data center in Berkeley County, SC. The company recently requested permission from regulators to draw an additional 1.5 million gallons per day from the underground aquifer to help cool the servers. According to the Post and Courier, the data center already uses about 4 million gallons of surface water per day.

The newspaper also reports that more than 11 million gallons per day of groundwater are pumped by wells in the three counties around Charleston. The water pressure is steadily dropping, demonstrating that the supply is not able to replenish quickly enough to sustain itself.

Several individuals, including Emily Cedzo of the Coastal Conservation League, have voiced concern about the impact of increased water withdrawal on the underground aquifer. In an interview with NPR she pointed out that Google is uses recycled wastewater at its data center in Douglas County, GA. “It’s great to have Google in this region; folks are proud to say that Google calls Charleston home,” Cedzo said. “So by no means are we going after Google . . . Our concern, primarily, is the source of that water.”

Industry experts foresee water conservation as an area in which the data center industry will likely keep innovating. As Michael Kassner points out in a Data Center Dynamics, “In less than a decade, data center operators have addressed the power issue and taken responsibility for how much electricity they use, with most of the major data center operations moving towards using 100% renewable power. In another 10 years, we may see similar changes around water use.”

What are your thoughts? Should data centers like Google’s Berkeley County facility be granted additional water withdrawals? Will quenching their thirst today delay the development of future water conservation technologies?WE_bug_web

Comments
  • James Mayer.

    Should be a method developed to either return the water to where it came from of recycle/reuse a finite amount of water rather than using it once and done.

    Reply
    • Laura S.

      Absolutely. The technology exists. In fact, Google recycles/reuses water at its Douglas County, GA data center. It’s just a little more expensive. Reuse would definitely be an environmentally responsible choice.

      Reply
  • Jonathan McClelland.

    It’s a bit disheartening if shaming is required to get a 21st century corporation like Google to use BMPs for all resources, but if that’s what it takes, I say “Shame on you, Google, for not doing that in your S.C. data center voluntarily.”

    Reply
  • Meredith McGuire.

    Thanks for your timely article. I’m an environmental activist in San Antonio and was concerned about water-intensive industries relocating or expanding in our drought-prone region, over-committing our precious water sources. Given our region’s relatively high average rainfall, rainwater harvesting and stormwater capture, treatment and use make sense as a primary source of water that all residences and businesses should co-invest in. I say co-invest, because the city and builders should also invest in rainwater harvesting and stormwater capture as close to where the rain falls as possible as a way of preventing or reducing damage due to flooding. So the data centers and the microprocessing wafer fabs should be built with ample roofs with shading overhanging eaves, lined with gutters leading to huge cisterns, ideally underground to keep the stored water cooler, and overflow into rain-gardens and other ways of putting overflow in the ground to slow, spread, and sink. I’m concerned about over-reliance on recycled water, though, because in a prolonged and severe drought, residents could reduce indoor water use to less than 30 gpcd and reuse graywater, such that sewage flow to the treatment plants could drop by 75%. San Antonio Water System has a burgeoning number of large data centers that must share recycled water with the Toyota factory, and numerous playing fields, golf courses, etc. that use it for irrigation. And some of that recycled water is committed to the downstream flows of the San Antonio River. We need a technology that transfers all that heat from the water to produce usable energy or some method of cooling without evaporating water. Until that happens, there ought to be some limits on the number and size of data centers, because climate change is likely to make renewable water less predictable as a water source.

    Reply
  • Rob O.

    Presumably, most of this water is evaporated through the cooling towers (evap cooling) which ultimately transfer the heat gain from the building to the outdoors. The water reuse opportunity comes from the blowdown water which is rejected to sanitary sewer as the mineral content (conductivity) begins to push to outer edges of control range in these systems. Predictive control (analytics) would allow for running the water harder before being rejected to sanitary, thereby saving precious water supplies. The technology exists today to refine this process.

    Reply
  • Rob O.

    Presumably, most of this water is evaporated through the cooling towers (evap cooling) which ultimately transfer the heat gain from the building to the outdoors. The water reuse opportunity comes from the blowdown water which is rejected to sanitary sewer as the mineral content (conductivity) begins to push to outer edges of control range in these systems. Predictive control (analytics) would allow for running the water harder before being rejected to sanitary, thereby saving precious water supplies. The technology exists today to refine this process through advanced sensors and feedback.

    Reply
  • Dennis Fleming.

    If I understand correctly the water is reused and recycled.
    It is recycled within the cooling tower until the water in the cooling tower tanks needs to be refreshed. That time the water will be discharged and replaced with new water. Water that is evaporated in the cooling process is a natural part of the water cycle. It will return to earth in the form of rain. Google does not “consume” water. The water is used and returned to the water cycle. Water consumption would require converting the water to Hydrogen and Oxygen and make other chemical compounds of those elements.

    Reply
    • Henry.

      I would argue that water evaporating from a cooling tower is not a natural part of the water cycle. Evaporation from lakes, rivers, oceans, etc. is certainly a natural process, but this water would still be in an aquifer if not for industrial demand.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Enter Your Log In Credentials
×