Navigating the Waters of Sustainability: Effective Water Management in Data Centers

In the ever-evolving landscape of digital infrastructure, we are witnessing the narrative transitioning towards sustainability, with a particular emphasis on a critical but often overlooked aspect: the profound impact of data centers on water consumption. 

Dan Scarbrough, the Founding Partner of Digital Infra Network and CSO of Stelia, engaged in a dialogue with Robert Bunger, Innovation Product Owner for the Data Center Segment at Schneider Electric to delve into the challenges posed by water usage in data centers and explore potential mitigation strategies. Here are Robert’s perspectives on the topic at hand:

Unveiling the Challenges and Journey Towards Zero Water

Historically, data centers operated discreetly in terms of water use. However, with the industry’s expansive growth, water consumption primarily associated with cooling systems is now under scrutiny. Major data center operators are committing to achieving zero water use, placing an unwavering focus on tracking and minimizing water consumption.

Bunger shared staggering statistics: 

A conventional data center, employing a chiller system for one megawatt of cooling, can consume approximately two Olympic-size swimming pools of water annually. This figure provides a stark perspective on the colossal scale of water usage within the industry.

Used water in data center cooling systems undergoes various processes. In some instances, it evaporates into the atmosphere, affecting water availability in different locations. Considerations also extend to discharges and drainage into sewer systems, with the primary goal of curtailing withdrawals from local water sources.

Metrics and Challenges: Striving for Sustainability

Metrics such as Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) and Water Usage Effectiveness (WUE) play pivotal roles in the industry. PUE focuses on the ratio of energy use, while WUE centers on water use annually over IT energy consumption. Achieving sustainability goals necessitates trade-offs, especially in cooling systems where evaporative water use can enhance energy efficiency. The challenge lies in balancing water and energy considerations, factoring in elements like the type of power used and regional water availability.

Liquid Cooling Solutions: A Sustainable Shift

The industry has seen a surge in liquid cooling solutions, particularly with high-density chips for AI deployments. Liquid cooling, including immersive and direct-to-chip solutions, facilitates higher cooling water temperatures, improving efficiency. This presents a sustainable shift, particularly with the ascent of AI-driven high-density chips. However, broader adoption hinges on factors such as industry conservatism and hardware vendors’ willingness to warrant liquid cooling equipment.

The Role of AI in Optimization

With AI, Bunger sees a transformative role in optimizing water and power usage in data centers. AI possesses the potential to facilitate real-time adjustments in power and cooling profiles based on factors like renewable energy availability, grid conditions, and specific operational needs. While full-scale implementation may take time, focused use cases could emerge within the next five years.

Recommendations for Industry Sustainability

Being an innovation expert, Bunger provides a few recommendations for the industry. Transparency is pivotal for water sustainability. Data center operators should meticulously measure and comprehend their water usage, implementing action plans to curtail it. Novel data centers should aspire to operate without water, contemplating potential regional variations. On the carbon front, industry participants should transcend mere green energy purchases and actively contribute to the grid, aligning with the escalating presence of renewables.

Embarking on the journey towards sustainability in data centers necessitates skillful navigation through challenges, embracing innovations, and a thorough approach to the management of water and carbon. In our collective pursuit of net-zero targets, collaboration and continuous improvement emerge as critical pillars.

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