Data centre operators under pressure as water resources dry up

water drought

Following the news that Thames Water is reviewing the water usage of data centre infrastructure within their region, analysts from data and analytics company Global Data have highlighted the pressures faced by data centre operators, water companies, and local councils as a result of climate change.

While climate change is driving data centres toward greater energy and cooling efficiency, innovations such as water cooling could potentially be viewed as incompatible with a future in which the global drought conditions we have witnessed throughout the summer of 2022 become a more regular occurance.

David Bicknell, principal analyst in the thematic intelligence team at GlobalData, said: “We have reached an environmental crunch point in the resources needed to run data centres. Switching to liquid cooling can cut a data centre’s electricity usage, but water is an increasingly scarce resource in drought-stricken parts of Europe and the US.

“With the UK experiencing its driest summer for 50 years – and water companies failing to reduce leaks – operators hoping to use 25 litres of drinking water an hour to cool data centres as a cheaper alternative to energy-guzzling refrigeration systems are finding their options running dry. Cleaning up rain or river water is more expensive for operators and will require an environmental license. Yet, using that water may itself reduce the nearby water table.

“Data centres create relatively few jobs, so it is no wonder local council members are starting to object to using local land and environmental resources for data centre development. In early 2022, South Dublin County Council passed a motion to prevent further local data centre development until 2028 as part of its County Development Plan. It is unlikely to be the last organisation to take such a decision.”

Chris Drake, principal analyst of data center technologies at GlobalData, added: “In recent years, so-called hyperscale data centres have managed to achieve high levels of energy efficiency thanks to the use of energy efficient designs, modern cooling systems, and a reliance on renewable energy. However, as existing data centres are expanded and new ones built, often in key hub locations, this puts mounting pressure on finite land, energy and water resources.

“With many parts of the world experiencing prolonged periods of drought and the likelihood of future recurring drought, this will attract growing scrutiny and criticism of the way data centres consume water and encourage pressure for new restrictions to be introduced. Although switching to alternative cooling systems could, in many cases, help address existing pressures, switching to alternative technologies rarely happens overnight.”

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