Glowing blue and green lights in a server center
Photo: Andrey Rudkov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Data centers are a secret water scourge

Protocol Climate

Good day, Protocol Climate friends. We’re happy to have you with us. Today’s newsletter is diving into drought in the West and the secret lives of data centers, a methane milestone and EV charging’s big bucks. Grab a tall, cool glass of water (except if you’re in Los Angeles because, you know, water restrictions and all that) and join us!

Data and drought drama

The West is parched, and getting more so by the day. As cities ask residents to let lawns turn brown and reservoir managers consider dramatic plans, data centers are still likely sucking up massive amounts of water. Just how much? Well, that’s unclear given that many centers don’t even track, much less report, it.

While their energy use and accompanying emissions get the headlines, data centers’ water usage is coming under increasing scrutiny. As the climate continues to change, water will become increasingly scarce. That begs a question: Is it time for hyperscale data center owners to start factoring water scarcity into their operations?

“There’s a trade-off between energy efficiency and water use” in terms of how a company cools a data center, said Arman Shehabi, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

  • Data centers consume water both directly (for liquid cooling) and indirectly (for non-renewable electricity generation). And many source water from moderately to highly water-stressed watersheds.
  • In recent decades, many data centers have relied on water more than on electricity for cooling, Shehabi added.
  • But Shehabi said water availability is still likely low on the priority list when companies are deciding where to build, at least compared to the price of electricity. Drought, and specifically the ongoing drought in the West, is “pretty new on the radar” of these companies, he said.

Information on how much water any given center or company uses is thin, a fact that has already led to tension on the local level between companies and communities that have been asked to cut their use in times of drought.

  • The Uptime Institute found in its latest Global Data Center Survey that just 51% of the respondents measure water use in some way, even as energy use and emissions tracking has become standard.
  • Compared with energy use, said David Mytton, who authored a 2021 paper on the subject, “water consumption is much more behind the scenes, is much more controversial, and in some cases is considered, or has been considered in the past, a trade secret.”

Data center giants are slowly beginning to reveal more about how much water they use. But true transparency, especially on the level of the individual data center, remains out of reach.

  • Microsoft has begun sharing its aggregate consumption in its annual sustainability reports. The 2021 installment shows that the company’s appetite for water has grown steadily over the last five years (so, too, have its replenishment efforts). The company aims to increase its replenishment to the point where it outstrips its water consumption by 2030.
  • AWS and Google, Microsoft’s main competitors, are at least tracking the data for internal use. Google also set a water stewardship pledge, saying it will replenish 120% of the water it consumes by 2030.
  • AWS has stated publicly that it is working to use water more efficiently and use less potable water to cool its data centers. An AWS spokesperson confirmed that the company tracks its own water use, and the company has not had to cut back as a consequence of the drought.
  • Options for reducing and replenishing water use include recycling and waterless cooling technologies.

More data on data center water could be coming. Companies are increasingly waking up to the risks of climate change. With the West entering an era of megadrought and water stress increasing in other parts of the world, drought could be part of the planning process.

  • Arno van Gennip, the vice president of operations engineering at the global digital infrastructure company Equinix, said the company began considering the risks in 2021, and is looking into contingency plans for the impacts of both drought and flood.
  • Van Gennip predicted that new data centers will consider water access down the road. “This is one of the areas where we need to be prepared,” he said.

— Lisa Martine Jenkins

Houston, we have a methane problem

Methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide at heating the planet. It’s also comparatively short-lived in the atmosphere, which means if we cut methane now, we can make major climate inroads. And that’s what makes satellite data firm Kayrros’ latest report so unsettling.

The firm’s satellite analysis shows an increase in emissions and in the intensity of those emissions across the Permian, Appalachian and Anadarko regions in the first quarter this year to their highest totals since 2019, when the firm’s data analysis begins. Embedded within that is even more worrying news (as if we needed that).

There were once signs of some good (OK, “good”) news. Kayrros’ data showed that emissions dipped in three major U.S. fossil fuel regions from 2019 to 2020. The pandemic, of course, had something to do with that. But so, too, did emissions intensity. That’s a measure of how much methane was emitted per unit of gas or oil extracted. That’s relatively good news in the sense that while in the long run we need to wind down the fossil fuel industry, in the immediate-term, cutting methane tied to producing fossil fuels buys us some time. Which is what makes the new report so alarming.

Methane is once again on the rise. The past three quarters have seen emissions and intensity climb steeply, reaching record highs. There are some even more nightmarish nuggets buried in Kayrros’ findings:

  • Texas’ Permian basin, the heart of the American oil industry, saw emissions rise more than 30% quarter-over-quarter from Q4 2021 to Q1 2022. Intensity also rose. Oh, and oil production actually declined just a smidge so it’s not like we’re even getting more, uh, bang for the pollution buck.
  • Even more worrisome: The Appalachian coal basin saw methane emissions shoot up like a Falcon Heavy rocket from basically nothing in 2020 (thanks again, COVID-19) to record levels in 2021. That increase comes even as coal production keeps declining. Less of one of the dirtiest fossil fuels being dug up? That’s good. Less coal being dug up with more methane emissions? That’s bad.

The timing is pretty embarrassing: The U.S. inked a pledge at last year’s United Nations climate talks promising to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. It’s clearly not off to a good start.

  • The Kayrros report also comes as fossil fuel companies try to use the crunch at the gas pump to body the Biden administration into leasing more land for drilling and weakening regulations.
  • Oh, and any day now the Supreme Court may well strike down the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases, which would create an even larger headache and potential climate calamity.
  • It’s not just the U.S. either. “While it’s only six months since the launch of the Global Methane Pledge, the overall trend in global methane emissions so far appears to be going in the wrong direction,” the report authors write.

Again, if there’s a silver lining here, it’s that we have the tools to cut methane by shoring up leaky pipelines and fracking sites to buy some time while we wind down fossil fuel extraction. And we have the monitoring tools in space to make sure we’re doing just that. But the report shows we’re going in the opposite direction right now.

— Brian Kahn


The competitive edge of digital solutions: For the last 50 years, SAP has worked closely with our customers to solve some of the world’s most intricate problems. We have also seen, and have been a part of, rapid accelerations in technology in response. Across industries, certain paths have emerged to help businesses manage the unexpected challenges over the last few years.

Read more from SAP

One big number: $700 million

Here’s a little good news chaser after that shot of methane sadness. On Tuesday, the White House announced $700 million in commitments from private companies to build out electric vehicle charging. The cash will up U.S. charging manufacturing capacity to 250,000 chargers a year and increase the number of chargers out in the wild. Not too bad!

The announcement includes $450 million from Volkswagen and Siemens in investments that will backstop its Electrify America charging network (fun fact: it’s an outgrowth of Dieselgate). The latter is plunging $100 million into Electrify America as well, making it the first outside investor in the company.

The timing comes as states prepare to submit their plans for how they’ll use the $7.5 billion in EV charging cash available through the bipartisan infrastructure law. That money is meant to spur private investments as well, and it seems to be doing just that. Which, hey, isn’t it nice when something works as intended?

[Whispers] Now we just need tens of billions more to make EV charging as robust as it needs to be to kick the internal combustion engine to the curb.

— Brian Kahn

Hot links

Los Angeles wants to say goodbye to gas. Well, new gas stations anyways. A proposal could, if passed, make Los Angeles the first major city in the U.S. to ban their construction.

New infrastructure initiative alert. At the G-7 summit, President Biden said the U.S. would commit $200 billion to a range of global projects, including those focused on climate and renewable energy.

Tesla can’t be stopped. U.S. electric vehicle sales have doubled over the past year, and Elon Musk’s juggernaut is crushing the competition by accounting for more than 60% of all new sales in April, the last month with data available.

It’ll cost more green to go green. Tesla, Ford and GM have all raised the cost of buying an EV to offset increasing costs of materials. (Yes, this is an ongoing issue.)

Are trees tech? Who can say, really, but “pongamia” is a cool word, and Terviva is an agtech company trying to bring the tree that could grow nearly anywhere in the world to the masses.

Oil CEO warns ending oil use is dangerous.Exxon’s Darren Woods said a quick renewables transition could come at a "high price.” Unlike our affordable present fossil-fueled economy with $5 per gallon of gas.

And we’ll all float on. At least that’s the theory behind those designing floating cities, a concept that was once a pipe dream but is picking up steam as sea levels rise.

New power lines might be the most finicky tech of all, at least when it comes to getting them built. But we’ll need a ton of new transmission to get more clean energy onto the grid.

Brian Kahn and Lisa Martine Jenkins


The competitive edge of digital solutions: When companies invest in maintaining their “green ledger” with the same commitment they have to their financial ledgers, they will be able to connect their environmental, social, and financial data holistically so they can steer their business towards sustainability. At the end of the day, what gets measured, gets managed.

Read more from SAP

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