Historically speaking, corporate action on water-related environmental issues has been less publicly visible than strategies for reducing energy usage and related greenhouse gas emissions.
Consider this data point. As of its 2020 water update, corporate data gatherer CDP reports about two-thirds of reporting businesses are reducing their water withdrawals; slightly more than half are monitoring the quality of their wastewater discharges and just 4 percent are making progress against water pollution targets.
But the tide may be turning: Between 2019 and 2020, there was a 20 percent increase in the number of companies reporting water impacts and risks to the CDP surveys. And in the past month, several high-profile multinationals became more markedly public about their intentions.
Among them, manufacturing giant 3M joined the Water Resilience Coalition, an initiative focused on reducing water stress that’s part of the CEO Water Mandate. Then, two very different companies announced "water positive" goals: PepsiCo, which aims to replenish more water than it uses from high-risk areas by 2030, and Facebook, which has also committed to restoring more water to ecosystems than it consumes. Google stepped out last week with an even more ambitious commitment: to replenish 120 percent of its average water consumption across its facilities and data centers.
"At our data centers, we’ll identify opportunities to use freshwater alternatives where possible — whether that's seawater or reclaimed wastewater," wrote Google Chief Sustainability Officer Kate Brandt in the blog about the new pledge. "When it comes to our office campuses, we’re looking to use more on-site water sources — such as collected stormwater and treated wastewater — to meet our non-potable water needs like landscape irrigation, cooling and toilet flushing."
How will it figure out that extra percentage? The company said it "will vary depending on the local conditions, but we will target water scarce regions in order to ensure we are positively impacting the areas that need it most."
Google will base its calculations on the difference between the current water scarcity of a water shed (demand divided by supply) and what it considers to be a "desired" ratio — a scenario in which demand is less than 40 percent of the "available water supply in the given area," according to its declarations.
The pledges made by Google and Facebook are a wake-up call for the tech sector, given the furious pace at which both are growing and the innovation that both companies have driven in corporate renewable energy procurement.
Facebook's new pledge is particularly intriguing, given its plan to invest $800 million to build a new solar-powered data center in Mesa, Arizona. As one of the states most dependent on the Colorado River Basin — from which it gets about 36 percent of its water — Arizona faces huge reductions starting in 2022.
Facebook acknowledged concerns over water consumption in the data center announcement, and pointed to "three water restoration projects that together will restore over 200 million gallons of water per year in the Colorado River and Salt River basins and will help provide greater water security for the entire state."
Its "water positive" commitment came one week later. "We primarily look for water restoration projects related to conservation and ecosystem restoration, water supply and reliability, water access, sanitation and hygiene, and water quality," wrote Sylvia Lee, technical lead for Facebook's water and climate programs, in a blog post about the new strategy. "Further, our water restoration projects are third-party verified, and we use the Volumetric Benefits Accounting Methodology to measure our impact."
The guidelines, developed by a group including the World Resources Institute, Quantis, LimnoTech and Valuing Nature, were published in 2019 to help corporations measure the impact of water stewardship activities.
Facebook faces facts
Facebook has actually reported on basic water consumption in detail for at least six years (officially) — and focused on reducing it for more than a decade.
According to its 2020 Sustainability Data report, Facebook withdrew about 3.7 million cubic meters of water last year, with the vast majority of that amount dedicated to its data centers — where water traditionally plays a huge role in keeping things cool. Its facility in Clonee, Ireland, was the single thirstiest location, while one of Facebook’s newer data centers in New Albany, Ohio, sipped the least. Facebook also reports a different number, consumption: In 2020, it used 2.2 million cubic meters across all of its facilities. It is also reports on water usage effectiveness (WUE) — a formula that measures how much water is used to cool a data center versus the energy it uses to run the equipment. Its WUE number is pretty impressive: just 0.30 liters per kilowatt-hour, compared with the 1.7 L/kWh average for most data centers.
Facebook has invested substantially in water efficiency and recycling technologies (the latter mainly for its offices) over the past decade. In the data centers, those improvements have been tied most notably to its investments in advanced evaporative cooling systems, such as the approach it co-developed with Nortek Air Solutions. The StatePoint Liquid Cooling System uses a membrane energy exchange to cool water as it evaporates: That cold water is then used to chill the air inside the data center. The technology can operate in three modes, depending on the outside temperature and humidity conditions.
The social media company’s investments in renewable energy — the big attraction in Arizona, where the data center will be powered by solar energy sourced from three Salt River Project installations — have also helped save "hundreds of billions of gallons" of water, according to Lee. In 2020 alone, for example, sourcing solar and wind power helped Facebook save 1.4 billion cubic meters of water, compared with what its operations would have required if they were powered by electricity generated by coal or natural gas plants.
But getting to a water positive status will require water restoration investments, focused on "water-stressed" regions. So far, Facebook has backed at least 14 of them: a move that will replenish more than 850 million gallons of water annually.
In Arizona specifically, Lee told me Facebook is working on efforts to restore up to 200 million gallons of water per year. These fixes could be as straightforward as helping fix leaky irrigation infrastructure or helping finance arrangements to improve water access. The company has also funded the Colorado River Indian Tribes System Conservation Project —a program of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation that is also supported by Google — focused on stabilizing water levels in Lake Mead.
As it adds more projects, they will be specifically located in the watersheds that Facebook is affecting with its operations. In New Mexico, for example, Lee said Facebook has helped restore mountain wetlands so that they can absorb more water; in Eagle Mountain, Utah, the company has constructed a system that turns its "treated operational wastewater" into an irrigation supply for the city’s parks. And in Prineville, Oregon, Facebook is contributing to a storage project that helps replenish the local aquifer during wetter months. "Unlike carbon, with water it really matters that the action is in the same watershed," Lee said.
Google likewise prioritizes local projects. In Dublin, Ireland, it’s installing rainwater harvesting to help reduce stormwater runoff into the River Liffey and Dublin Bay. At its data center in Douglas County, Georgia, it’s using reclaimed wastewater for cooling purposes. (More details are available as part of a white paper it published alongside the commitment.)
Like Facebook, Google’s sustainability team will prioritize reporting using the Volumetric Benefits methodology and the Benefit Accounting of Nature-based Solutions for Watersheds guide published by a number of initiatives, including CEO Water Mandate. During 2019, its most recent disclosure, it consumed 3.4 billion gallons of water. Google is also funding data and analytics tools for water stewardship, including OpenET, which shows water evaporation trends, and BlueConduit, a resource for identifying and mapping hazardous water infrastructure.
Where should you put a data center, anyway?
Looking into the future, water considerations including "water security" for communities have become a central part of the decision-making process that both Facebook and Google will use to choose data center sites, along with considerations such as taxes, physical security, electricity supply, high-speed fiber infrastructure and interconnections.
Water availability or environmental impact isn’t typically a key consideration in most data center siting decisions, according to researchers from Virginia Tech. But that is beginning to change. "With much of the western U.S. currently experiencing historic drought conditions, some data center operators are beginning to think more seriously about the water requirements of their data centers and the impact on the local environment and community, as well as how water shortages present a risk to their operations," wrote Landon Marston, an assistant professor with the school’s civil and environmental engineering department, in response to questions I sent him for this article.
Marston and his research colleagues, Md Abu Bakar Siddik and Arman Shehabi, suggested several ways companies can address the water risks associated with their data center operations.
- Seek locations where a large portion of the electric grid includes wind and solar generation resources
- Assess the water scarcity profile for the specific community in which the facility is based
- Ask colocation or hosting providers to address how much water is used directly and indirectly to support computing loads
- Evaluate how much water is consumed, compared with industry benchmarks
"We are beginning to see more mandatory cuts to water use through the western U.S.," Marston wrote. "Companies should ask themselves how likely these water use restrictions are to affect data center operation. These risk appear minimal at the moment but this could change quickly if water restrictions become more severe in the face of worsening water shortage."
Watch for more innovation
The use of advanced cooling systems is something that both Facebook and Google have invested in for years. For example, Google has developed ways to recirculate water several times through its cooling systems — a method that it says can save up to 50 percent of the water required.
More recently, the company has participated on several innovative projects. In the Netherlands, for example, Google invested $53.17 million to help create an industrial pipeline that delivers water from a wastewater treatment plant to its data center. In Belgium, it uses water from an industrial canal to recharge its cooling systems.
Some companies, such as Microsoft, are testing even more novel approaches: It has submerged a small data center in chilly seawater off the coast of Scotland.
One startup to benefit from the attention on data center water issues is LiquidStack, which recently raised $10 million in Series A funding from cloud service provider Wiwynn. The company, which developed its technology in collaboration with one of the world’s largest bitcoin miners, provides two-phase direct immersion technology focused on handling the cooling needs of high-performance data centers. The electronics are directly submerged in dielectric fluids that are used in applications such as semiconductor fabrication or fire suppression. During the first phase, the heated fluid boils off and evaporates; it recondenses on a special coil during the second phase and the resulting droplets help reject additional heat.
Joe Capes, co-founder and CEO of LiquidStack and a former executive with data center technology provider Schneider Electric, said the "waste" heat created by the system can be piped back to help heat hot water which could be used by a greenhouse, corporate campus or district water supply.
"Our ambition as a contribution to data center sustainability is not just to mitigate but to eliminate the use of water for heat mitigation," he told me.
With the U.S. data center industry expected to grow from $8.4 billion last year to $13.9 billion by 2026, innovations such as these are certain to trickle into the evolving water strategies for every data-driven organization.