Climate Corps: How AT&T found 3 ways to reduce its water use

Editor's Note: We are pleased to present the first in a series of postcards from 2012 EDF Climate Corps fellows. This year EDF dispatched its fellows to 88 companies, local governments and public school systems. The fellows are tasked with developing strategies and solutions that increases energy efficiency. Our first postcard from the field comes from Ravindra Bhandari, who is an MBA candidate at Babson College and is working with AT&T during his fellowship. Stay tuned for more postcards from this year's fellows on GreenBiz, and read posts from past years at GreenBiz.com/EDFClimateCorps.

I distinctly remember watching “An Inconvenient Truth” when the documentary was first released. It struck a deep emotional chord in me. I felt an obligation to do something but did not know where to begin.

That changed this summer. As an EDF Climate Corps fellow working with the water and energy sustainability team at AT&T, I finally found a way to translate my passion into action.

When I learned where I would be posted for the summer, I wondered what does AT&T -- a telecommunications company -- have to do with energy or water management? But then, during the first few days at AT&T’s headquarters in downtown Dallas, Tex., I learned that:

  • AT&T has a substantial real estate footprint made up of thousands of leased and owned facilities
  • These facilities consume a total of 3.4 billion gallons of water every year, equivalent to about 5,150 Olympic-size swimming pools
  • Just 125 of AT&T’s sites – including data centers and large office buildings – are responsible for more than 50 percent of AT&T’s total water use
  • Many of these facilities are located in water-stressed regions of the country

With such a significant impact, AT&T wants to reduce its energy and water footprint for the long-term sustainability of its operations. To tackle this problem, AT&T teamed up with Environmental Defense Fund to find innovative solutions for reducing the overall water consumption at cooling towers, which use a surprising amount of water to keep buildings cool. As an EDF Climate Corps fellow, I had a unique opportunity to engage in this work and help develop our approach for finding significant water, energy and cost savings.

Three-pronged approach

Our approach was to tackle the problem on three fronts:

  1. Technology Evaluation: Identify and track the performance of innovative water treatment technologies that dramatically reduce water use in cooling towers and analyze the possibilities of rolling them out to more sites.
  2. Operational Improvements: Use best practices to engage our facility managers and service providers to increase the number of times we can use our cooling tower water and reduce the amount of water discharged to the sewer.
  3. Maximize the opportunity for free air cooling: Identify sites where free air cooling – bringing cooler outside air in – can be used to reduce the need for mechanical cooling.  Since conventional cooling methods can be energy and water intensive, reducing the load on those systems can drive significant savings.

Photo of water splash provided by mashe via Shutterstock

Next page: Taking on the challenges