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Enabling Reliable Data Center Growth in an Era of Water Scarcity
Emilio Tenuta, Vice President, Corporate Sustainability, Ecolab
Data centers and their electricity supply chains require fresh water to deliver the massive amounts of data that the world relies on. A typical cooling system uses up to 8 million gallons of water a year per megawatt of electricity, according to the Uptime Institute, an advisory organization focused on improving the performance, efficiency and reliability of business-critical infrastructure. Currently, much of that supply comes from fresh water.
A recent study conducted by Stanford, Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, and U.S. Department of Energy researchers estimated that U.S. data centers will require approximately 174 billion gallons of water to maintain operations in 2020. If we continue with business as usual, the global demand for fresh water to support all people and all industries is expected to exceed available supplies by 40 percent by 2030. This imbalance between supply and demand is jeopardizing the reliability of water to support human health, agricultural productivity, and economic development, and to maintain sustainable ecosystems.
The scarcity of water, both in terms of quantity and quality, along with greater demand to cool servers, will translate into an increased operational risk for businesses around the world. That’s particularly true in places such as California– the most populous state– with over 800 datacenters, more than any other state. Companies, including those that manage big data, are aware of these risks and many have actively increased their water conservation efforts over the past decade.
However, since 2011, overall corporate water use has declined by only 10 percent. That’s not nearly enough to close the gap. Valuing water as an asset rather than taking it for granted is a paradigm shift that must occur, along with an understanding that water stress is a function of both quantity and quality. This requires a more comprehensive water stewardship approach that assesses risks in three areas: physical (water availability and quality), regulatory, and reputational.
Here are three pathways for data centers to follow to ensure that they have the water they need to operate now and in the future.
Given the growing demand for the public cloud (CAGR 22 percent), it is essential for data centers to adopt an integrated water management strategy to maintain reliable performance and operational resiliency
Consider water risk as a critical factor when making a decision about where to build or expand data centers.Smart water management plans incorporate conservation, reuse and recycle strategies but the first step is putting any data center that requires water where water is more likely to be available. In many regions of the world, the price of water is undervalued and underpriced even when it is scarce and, as a consequence, businesses aren’t fully aware of its scarcity and the related business risks in a given location. Publicly available tools, such as the Water Risk Monetizer, can help determine the risk-adjusted cost of water to your business in various locations. It’s a factor that should be considered in evaluating sites for new operations, or where to expand existing operations.
Develop a redundancy plan to ensure that you have a sufficient supply of water stored in case of an unexpected disruption (e.g., a water main break). Are you going to have enough water onsite? How many hours of water will your facility need? The Uptime Institute recommends that data centers in tiers 1-4 must have at least 12 hours of onsite water storage to maintain critical cooling systems in a worst-case scenario.
Create a resiliency plan to prepare for water risks that could have long-term consequences for your operations. Take a broader view of the factors affecting your data center and consider both current and future water conditions in your area of operation. Investigate alternatives to fresh water such as gray water (purple pipes), rain harvesting, humidification recovery, and water transportation by third parties.
A Microsoft data center near San Antonio, Texas, used the Water Risk Monetizer and discovered that the true value of water, based on supply and demand, was more than 11 times greater than the center’s current water bill. Microsoft partnered with Ecolab to develop a smart water strategy for using recycled water (gray water) at the site. This led to more than $140,000 in water savings and reductions of nearly 60 million gallons a year. As this example illustrates, the Water Risk Monetizer not only encourages conservation, it helps make water reuse and recycling an important option for ensuring a more resilient future for businesses and communities alike.
Ask yourself what the likelihood is that your revenue will be at risk due to water scarcity from availability or quality in the coming years. Make sure you have a plan in place if quantity or quality is compromised for an extended period of time. Use the Water Risk Monetizer to calculate your revenue-at-risk score (the likelihood of a loss in revenue as a result of water scarcity) for three, five and 10 years. This information can help guide your decision-making and enable you to better manage and mitigate water-related risks.
Water scarcity is a genuine threat to data center growth, reliability and reputation. The time has come to rethink operations and implement aggressive water strategies to optimize operations, reduce costs and enable reliable growth. For technology companies facing intensifying public demand for information, downtime is simply not an option.