Unlocking Sustainability: Data Centres and Responsible Water Usage

by David Watkins, Solutions Director at VIRTUS Data Centres

At the core of our rapidly evolving digital landscape, data centres function quietly, serving as the invisible engines that power our daily routines. Whether we’re streaming our favourite television shows, efficiently managing our finances, or delving into a wealth of information online, data centres silently underpin our modern world, providing the essential infrastructure that enables convenience and uninterrupted connectivity. They are the unsung heroes that facilitate the seamless flow of data and maintain the digital fabric of our interconnected lives.

Because of our hunger for all things digital, managing the growth and environmental impact of data centres is paramount. With the rapid expansion of data centres, there is a growing concern about their ecological footprint, particularly when it comes to water consumption in cooling systems.

David Watkins, solutions director at VIRTUS Data Centres, underscores the importance of responsible water usage against this backdrop, stating, “Addressing the environmental impact of water usage in data centres is crucial to building a sustainable future.”

Diving into the Water Conundrum

As data centres scale up to meet the surging demand, some of these facilities can require substantial volumes of water for cooling and operational processes to keep their systems running. This reliance on water resources can sometimes strain local water supplies, amplifying concerns about water scarcity, especially in regions already grappling with this issue.

According to research, a data centre can consume up to 26 million litres of water each year, per megawatt of data centre power. While this statistic may raise eyebrows, it’s essential to acknowledge that water leakage by water companies is also a significant concern. According to OFWAT, in 2020-21, England and Wales leaked 51 litres of water per person per day, and in Scotland and Northern Ireland, this figure exceeded 80 litres of water.

David is quick to set the record straight: “The data centre industry has a long-standing commitment to sustainability and efficiency, with providers striving to use resources such as power and water responsibly. To mitigate these environmental challenges, we are embracing innovation as a cornerstone of our sustainability efforts. We are continuously exploring innovative sustainability strategies, including things like renewable energy sources, rainwater harvesting, zero water cooling systems, recycling, and efficient waste management.”

He continued: “A prime example of innovation in practice is the re-evaluation of cooling equipment. By optimising the point in the cooling cycle at which water is introduced, operators can significantly reduce water consumption. Implementing these kinds of practices, along with other efficiency initiatives, can lead to up to a 55% reduction in water consumption and a decrease in the use of associated consumables, such as water filters and maintenance materials. Innovative approaches like this ensure that water usage is minimised precisely when it is most crucial, especially during periods of high outside temperatures which we are experiencing even in the UK.”

More broadly, a growing number of data centre operators are making a substantial shift towards harnessing renewable energy sources to power their facilities. This transition not only significantly reduces their carbon footprint, mitigating the environmental impact of their operations, but also reaffirms their commitment to sustainable practices.

Leading the Way: VIRTUS’ Sustainable Initiatives

In this fast-paced industry, though, mere commitments to sustainability are insufficient. Some providers – such as the team at VIRTUS – are leading by example when it comes to the right approach, setting ambitious sustainability targets with a specific focus on reducing water usage in adiabatic cooling systems.

“At VIRTUS we are continually re-evaluating the cooling systems that we use,” David explains. “By carefully managing the introduction of water into the cooling cycle, we have achieved a significant reduction in water usage, which demonstrates our commitment to environmental stewardship.”

This commitment is exemplified at VIRTUS’ LONDON2 data centre in Hayes, London. The mission at LONDON2 is twofold: enhancing electrical efficiency and optimising water usage, driven by the recognition of data centres’ pivotal role in minimising their environmental impact wherever possible.

In the UK, where ambient conditions are ideal, VIRTUS has harnessed adiabatic cooling technology to efficiently cool the data halls. By leveraging the day/night cycle, free cooling is implemented to maintain the desired temperature within the facility.

David notes: “What sets LONDON2 apart is its strategic location above a natural aquifer, allowing the use of water not drawn from the public supply – another testament to our commitment to responsible resource management by design.”

Collaborative Responsibility

Ultimately, sustainability in data centres is a collective effort. Achieving sustainable data centres requires industry-wide collaboration and knowledge-sharing. Data centre operators are already uniting to share best practices, techniques, and insights, with a specific focus on water-saving strategies. This collaborative approach amplifies the impact of sustainability initiatives and accelerates progress toward shared environmental objectives.

“I think that the collective responsibility of the data centre industry to reduce its environmental impact sets a powerful precedent for other sectors worldwide,” David urges. “And, as data centre operators unite in their commitment to sustainability, we demonstrate that sustainability is not just a buzzword but a tangible goal that can be achieved through creativity, innovation, and concerted effort.” He adds: “The data centre industry’s commitment to reducing environmental impact is definitely a model for others to follow, highlighting that sustainability is not just a goal but a shared responsibility.”

Pioneering Sustainable Practices: A Global Movement

It’s also important to remember that different regions are facing different challenges and opportunities, and any industry-wide initiatives must take these regional nuances into consideration.  

In the Asia-Pacific region, for example, where water scarcity is a growing concern, data centres are exploring creative ways to address the water challenge. Rainwater harvesting systems, smart cooling technologies, and advanced filtration methods are just a few of the innovative solutions being employed. These initiatives not only safeguard the environment but also contribute to water conservation efforts.

Similarly, in North America, data centre operators are actively partnering with renewable energy providers to ensure that their facilities are powered by clean energy. The implementation of advanced cooling techniques, coupled with stringent water recycling practices, is further propelling the industry towards sustainability.

In Europe, data centre operators are at the forefront of adopting water-efficient technologies. Closed-loop cooling systems, where water is recycled within the facility, have become the norm. Collaborative industry initiatives are driving sustainability, and the integration of renewable energy sources has become a standard practice.

A Blueprint for a Sustainable Future

David concludes: “The data centre industry’s commitment to sustainable water usage not only benefits the environment but also sets an example for other sectors. As we collectively strive to address global water scarcity and environmental concerns, data centres demonstrate that innovation, dedication, and collaborative efforts are the keys to achieving sustainability.

“In this era of rapid digital transformation, data centres will continue to evolve. They will be instrumental in shaping a more sustainable and eco-friendly future. By leveraging technology, embracing renewable energy, and focusing on responsible water usage, data centres are not just adapting to the challenges of our times; they are actively working to overcome them.”

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