There continues to be a flurry of articles homing in on the data center industry, calling it out as a wasteful, inefficient use of resources on top of being noisy energy hogs that also detract from the landscapes they occupy. The write ups aim to tap into the emotional attachment of the reader to the resources and views around us with a typical escalation of how much worse it will be in 1, 2, 5, or 10 years. Catching attention with headlines seems to be the easy part, but seeing through weak arguments and implausible numbers with no sources has been harder to combat; data centers will need to deal with false information just like any other.
Among the top six threats given by Earth.org (Top 6 Environmental Issues the US Is Facing in 2023 | Earth.Org) for the United States in 2023, three of them are pollution (air, water, plastic), two are not (directly) related to data centers, and the last is relevant: water shortages. However, even that last can be solved for data centers and has been a concern most of the industry has been following to use less year-over-year. The water shortages have stemmed from droughts in specific regions, and those areas typically have regulations and closely followed standards on how water can be used for cooling systems. Fortunately, solutions are on the horizon, such as an agreement for water use by the states on the Colorado River to reduce water use by 13% by the close of 2026.
Addressing water use challenges is one of the biggest endeavors for data centers, whether large or small, colocation, enterprise, or hyperscale. With water pollution affecting the water resources, tangentially for data centers, the industry could be involved with the rivers and lakes more directly. About half of the rivers and a third of lakes are considered polluted, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. By using water from rivers or lakes as a heat sink, the amount of potable water requiring energy and chemical intense processing can be reduced considerably.
Going waterless for a data center has other challenges, such as an increase of the amount of energy required to produce cooling using air-cooled systems alone. That extra energy cost can add as much as 50% of the base mechanical system energy, increasing the overall data center power use and operating costs. Designs typically use water since it is much more efficient than air at moving and rejecting heat. Using a river or lake as a heat sink can again help by reducing the electricity peak demand and overall use year-round.
Back to the original headline argument about data centers being grid-sucking energy users and water wasters, using river or lake water closer to the need settles both the amount of water needed for cooling as well as the increased energy demand. The new false argument might follow those of decades past – the river or lake will be more adversely affected by the data center heat rejection than anything else, causing fish to boil and turning the water all shades of unnatural colors… however, engineering studies on past projects prove that mere heat rejection is the least of the impacts for such bodies of water. Other industrial uses (smelting, manufacturing, etc.), wastewater treatment plants, and storms have a much greater impact in a given day, month, and year than even the largest of data centers. Alternative Water Cooling Sources for Data Centers (ashrae.org)