Saturday, July 20, 2024

Data Centres & Water Security: Risks & Solutions

As convenient as it very well may be for people to live in the digital age, the same cannot be said for the environment and the ecological footprint of technology is certainly not something to be ignored, particularly as time goes on and the world becomes increasingly connected in this regard.

In order to facilitate all this connectivity and to drive the emergence of new and innovative tech, data centres are essential, fully equipped with technology like servers, networking equipment, storage devices and so on that manage and distribute vast amounts of data across a range of devices and locations on a global scale.

There are thousands of these data centres all over the world, the majority of which are located in the US, followed by Germany, the UK and China, all designed to meet the needs of specific data storage, processing and distribution applications to provide the necessary support for 21st century IT operations.

These data centres contain multiple servers, storage devices and other hardware to allow communication and provide data access – and they generate a significant amount of heat as a result of their day-to-day operations.

As such, they’re fitted with advanced cooling systems like liquid cooling and industrial air conditioning and ventilation to ensure that the centres maintain a constant temperature so that devices don’t overheat.

Power hungry

In terms of energy consumption, it’s estimated that data centres are responsible for up to three per cent of total global electricity generation – and this is expected to increase to four per cent by the year 2030.

The good news is that in a bid to drive down their overall carbon footprint, an increase in regulation and third-party oversight is now being seen to help reduce the sector’s contributions to climate change.

But it’s not just energy that needs to be considered and data centre water consumption is also a growing concern when set against the backdrop of water stress and scarcity, with projections now suggesting that there could be a 40 per cent gap between global freshwater supply and demand by 2030.

Of course, water is required for data centre construction and materials manufacturing in the first instance, but resources are also required in order to operate these facilities, both directly and indirectly.

And it seems as though the problem may get worse before it gets better thanks to the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), with a new report from non-profit organisation China Water Risk revealing that, while the 4.3 million data centre racks in China currently consume approximately 1.3 billion m3 of water, this could increase to more than three billion m3 by 2030.

As AI continues to take hold and services like chatbots become more commonplace, the report suggests that more than 20 times the current amount of water will be needed as a result.

Part of the problem in China is that 46 per cent of the nation’s data centre racks are located in arid regions, with at least 41 per cent situated in places that are especially prone to drought.

Furthermore, at least 28 per cent are in places highly prone to flooding, while at least one-fifth are in regions that are particularly prone to both.

On a global scale, because AI capabilities need to have huge volumes of data in order to operate, water consumption is only going to increase, with figures published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showing that Google’s onsite water consumption rose by 20 per cent in 2022 compared to 2021. Microsoft, meanwhile, saw a 34 per cent hike over the same timeframe.

Since AI is here to stay and the world is only going to become more connected, not less, the question must now be asked:

What can be done to reduce data centre water footprints?

There are plenty of opportunities for data centres to reduce their freshwater demand, one of which is treating and using reclaimed water for their cooling systems. This would significantly reduce freshwater abstraction and safeguard supplies in local communities, particularly in places where water security is already at risk.

Prioritising water leak detection and repair can also make a huge difference to the amount of water being wasted. In England, for example, three billion litres of water are lost each day through leakage, so finding weak spots across the network would help build resilience into data centre operations.

Investing in other technology like free cooling systems could be particularly advantageous, since this would mean that no water is required to keep the centres cool. Instead, cool air is captured directly from outside before being directed into equipment rooms to prevent overheating.

Some centres are also now using a method known as adiabatic cooling, where droplets of water are sprayed into the air to cool it down, even by a couple of degrees, which helps to keep the temperature down so that there’s less need for cooling systems to be operational.

However, while these solutions are indeed welcome, they don’t remove the need for cooling systems altogether, so it will become increasingly important for data centres to find new and innovative ways to reduce their impact on the environment as far as they possibly can.

Direct liquid cooling, for example, could be particularly effective, where water is passed through the servers to keep them cool without wasting any resources thanks to the system’s closed circuit capabilities.

Similarly, immersion cooling could be another alternative to the problem, where equipment is immersed in either a tank of water or a tank of oil to remove heat output more efficiently. Again, this is another closed circuit system so no water is wasted, making it a particularly attractive option.

Ultimately, different data centres will have specific issues they need to address based on their size and location so there is no one-size-fits-all solution that can be adopted… but, regardless, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the sector will need to find answers and fast if the unquenchable thirst of the digital age isn’t to have disastrous consequences for one and all.

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This article appeared in the June 2024 issue of Energy Manager magazine. Subscribe here.

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