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Data centers face water scarcity and climate risk

Autor: Franziska Betz

Data centers face water scarcity and climate risk
photo: Pixabay/David Mark

06. September 2022 | Data centers have become integral to a global economy that’s powered by digital information. However, many of the facilities depend on water to keep from overheating. That is further straining water resources in places like California, where Lake Oroville is almost dry due to severe drought that’s being fueled by climate change.

For years, companies that operate data centers have faced scrutiny for the huge amounts of electricity they use storing and moving digital information like emails and videos. Now, the U.S. public is beginning to take notice of the water many facilities require to keep from overheating. Like cooling systems in large office buildings, water often is evaporated in data center cooling towers, leaving behind salty wastewater known as blowdown that has to be treated by local utilities.

That reliance on water poses a growing risk to data centers, as computing needs skyrocket at the same time that climate change exacerbates drought. About 20% of data centers in the United States already rely on watersheds that are under moderate to high stress from drought and other factors, according to a paper co-authored last year by Arman Shehabi, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Yet relatively few companies have been willing to talk about the issue publicly because of the still-limited attention it gets. Sustainalytics, which assesses risks related to environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, recently said it looked at 122 companies that operate data centers and found just 16% had disclosed information about their plans for managing water-related risks.

Pushback is already emerging

Recently, some data center companies have faced opposition from communities and water conservationists. In 2015, the city of Chandler, Ariz., passed an ordinance allowing officials to turn down requests for new water uses if they are not aligned with the city’s plan for economic development. And in 2019, Google agreed to limit its use of groundwater in South Carolina after a two-year fight with local groups that had raised concerns that aquifers were being depleted.

In addition to using new technology, some experts have said companies can reduce their environmental footprint by building data centers in places with plenty of water. For now, however, real estate decisions appear to be primarily dictated by where customers are located.

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