Water consumption crisis of AI and data centres in a warming world

Microsoft, in its latest sustainability report, disclosed a remarkable surge in its water usage between 2021 and 2022. In 2021, the corporation utilised 4,772,890 cubic metres of water, a figure that ballooned to 6,399,415 in 2022, representing a staggering 30 percent year-over-year increase. To put this into perspective, this surge equates to nearly 1.7 billion gallons of water within a single year, sufficient to fill over 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The surge in Microsoft’s water consumption is intrinsically linked to its substantial investments in AI research and development. The company’s support for OpenAI, which operates a data centre in Des Moines, Iowa, is at the heart of this issue. The demand for cooling AI supercomputers within data centres is immense due to the substantial heat generated by the equipment. Consequently, during the summer months, these centres draw significant volumes of water from nearby watersheds, including the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, to maintain optimal operating conditions. However, this has raised concerns for local communities that rely on these water sources for drinking water.

Local utility companies, such as West Des Moines Water Works, have become increasingly concerned about the impact of data centers’ water usage. In an April 2022 document, officials and the utility outlined stringent conditions for future data centre projects, insisting that they must substantially reduce water consumption. This approach aims to safeguard the current and future water needs of West Des Moines, emphasising resource conservation as a vital priority.

Microsoft is not the sole tech giant grappling with escalating water consumption. Google, another major player heavily invested in AI technologies, reported a 20% increase in its water usage from 2021 to 2022. In response, the company has initiated measures to mitigate its water footprint through a climate-conscious data centre cooling strategy and a comprehensive water stewardship approach.

The growing challenge of cooling data centres in an era of rising global temperatures is a matter of increasing concern for large tech companies. While many data centres are situated in cooler regions such as the Pacific Northwest and states like Iowa, even these areas are not immune to heatwaves. Recent incidents, including equipment shutdowns during heatwaves at Twitter’s Sacramento data centre and Google and Oracle’s London-based data centres, underscore the urgency of addressing the impact of climate change on data centre operations and water usage.

Partner Resources

Popular Right Now

Edgecore Insight Podcast

Ep-1: Navigating the Waters of Sustainability

Others have also read ...