As the information communication sector grapples with the challenge of aligning its huge predicted growth (close to 30 billion devices are expected online by 2030, up from 18 billion in 2018) to ambitious climate-related targets, all environmental metrics of a data centre’s operation will have to be continually evaluated and improved. Water is rarely charged for separately by operators, and design decisions involving water scarcity/ availability measurement do not feature heavily in negotiations in core markets. The consumption metrics are perhaps surprising except for those intimately involved in the design of water-cooled solutions. This is perhaps less surprising when considered against the fact that less than one-third of data centre operators track any water metrics, ranking water conservation as a low priority.
With reporting requirements likely to become more extensive, this does highlight the need for data centre operators to be prepared for more forensic questioning in relation to their environmental impact. Requirements for accurate tracking of water use across both cooling and electricity generation will doubtless become mandated by governments and regulators looking to meet stringent targets. Innovation in this space will be critical in the coming years, with some promising signs coming in the fields of air-side optimisation and adiabatic cooling systems.
Innovation however, is only one part of a wider solution, which must go beyond data centres. A DEFRA report from October 2019 stated that the power consumption of server rooms represents 56% of total carbon emissions in Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), leading many investors to move towards Cloud solutions with lower consumption, where the energy and utility consumption and associate environmental and carbon impact is much harder to measure with certainty, despite recent moves to measure this more closely, in particular from the EU. The EU currently estimates that energy consumption of data centres in EU Member States is expected to increase from 2.7% of the electricity demand in 2018 to 3.2% by 2030. The report recommends technical and policy options to limit this increase. Clearly, providers who can reassure investors and decision makers with accurate information around energy consumption will be at an advantage in the years to come. And with ‘water crises’ now listed as the world’s leading threat, there is now little doubt that data centres’ water consumption will be drawn into the wider debate.
Fresh water accounts for just one percent of the Earth's fresh water, yet data center operators consume more than 660 billion liters every year - in the US alone