In a drier world, hit 'save' for water

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This article is sponsored by Ecolab.

If we’re going to manage the still-accelerating digital transformation, we’ll need water. But to manage our water, we’ll also need digital technology. At Ecolab, we know this all too well, as we are developing the cloud-based water management platform that will help keep digital data centers and microelectronics manufacturing plants humming in a world where, increasingly, water scarcity is the new normal.

First, the basics: Water scarcity is increasing. If we stay on the current path, demand for water will outstrip supplies by 40 percent by 2030. On the demand side, economic and population growth are putting pressure on water resources. On the supply side, climate change is adding to the strain. As sea levels rise, glaciers melt off and weather patterns become more erratic, some places will have too much water and others will have too little.

To be clear: Water scarcity is a result of climate change, but they’re not the same. While greenhouse gas emissions affect the totality of the Earth’s atmosphere, water scarcity is a local issue. One place may experience droughts, another torrential rains (or both interspersed), and a third may have to deal with salt water infiltration in coastal farmlands and municipal systems.

At the same time, the digital transformation of society is speeding up. You only may have to look around your own home to see how the number of internet-connected devices is proliferating, from smartphones, laptops and tablets to video-streaming devices, smart speakers and home security systems.

According to Cisco’s Virtual Networking Index Forecast, the average number of connected devices per capita will rise from 2.3 in 2016 to 3.5 in 2021. In that same time span, average network connection speeds will go from 27.5 Mbps to 53 Mbps and the average amount of data traffic per capita from 12.9 GB to 35.5 GB per month.

What that means is that we’ll be manufacturing a lot more devices and building more data centers to keep the digital cloud going. Both those things demand water — lots of it, in fact. Manufacturing microchips takes large amounts of ultra-pure water. Server farms generate heat and must be cooled constantly. A typical data center requires up to 8 million gallons of water per year per megawatt of electricity used.

You don’t have to be a data scientist to see that the technology sector would be well-advised to think very carefully about its water use and begin doing more with less. The price of inaction can be steep, from sharply rising water and maintenance bills to production interruptions and service outages.

The good news: There is a lot we can do about these risks. Better, still: We’re already doing it.

Water is the ultimate recyclable resource. Everybody remembers the water cycle from grade school: Water evaporates from the surface of the Earth, forms clouds, condenses into raindrops and snowflakes, and falls back to the surface. Yet, for the longest time, humans have insisted on using water as a disposable resource: flush and forget. If we mimicked Mother Nature’s perfectly circular water system in our economic activities, we’d be well on our way to building facilities resilient to climate change, and averting a water crunch down the line.

At Ecolab, that’s exactly what we’re doing. Every day we work with our customers around the world to reduce, reuse and recycle water. And that not only makes sense from a sustainability perspective, but also for the bottom line. Using water takes energy, because you have to pump it, heat it, cool it and treat it. That, along with the water bill itself, is costly. So, it’s a good idea to use as little as possible and recycle the water you’re already using.

Take, for instance, Samsung’s plant in Austin Texas, a notoriously water-stressed region. Samsung wished to reduce the plant’s water footprint while ensuring precise climate control — a necessity for semiconductor production. Working with Ecolab, the plant installed our 3D TRASAR water management technology. The result? An annual savings of 73.8 million gallons of water, equivalent to the drinking water needs of 255,000 people. Thanks to better water management, the plant also avoided $1.6 million in reduced maintenance and equipment replacement costs.

Or take Microsoft’s data center in San Antonio, Texas, located within the Leon Creek Watershed, an extremely water-stressed region that also presents water quality issues due to flooding, storms and stream bank erosion. Microsoft, too, installed 3D TRASAR, enabling the plant to use recycled water instead of potable water, saving more than $140,000 on its water bill and saving 58.3 million gallons of potable water per year.

These are two examples of how technology can help the tech sector’s facilities build water resilience in a changing world. 3D TRASAR is often likened to an MRI for industrial facilities, constantly monitoring water flow and quality, making precise adjustments in real time and preventing problems such as scaling and corrosion, which take their toll in the form of reduced efficiency and higher water use.

But 3D TRASAR is much more than a single-facility system. Attached to each of the more than 40,000 3D TRASAR units deployed around the world today is a wireless connection that links it back to our control center, where teams of engineers keep an eye on things 24/7, detecting problems before they become crises and offering expert advice to our customers’ local facilities.

Right now, we are linking all these systems together in a cloud-based platform that analyzes billions of data points every month, giving us the capability to see trends that were previously impossible to discern. Harnessing the power of big data and machine learning, we’ll be able to predict and remedy problems before they occur and help our customers further lower their water and energy use.

That’s how, in 2017, we helped conserve an aggregated 171 billion gallons of water — enough for the drinking water needs of 590 million people. With the new cloud platform, we’ll grow our capabilities even more, on our way to our goal of saving 300 billion gallons of water — enough for 1 billion people — by 2030.

That effort will help the technology sector thrive in a world where water is no longer the seemingly ubiquitous, throwaway commodity it is perceived as today — and sustain the growth of a smarter, richer, more networked society. But one thing is certain: We surely couldn’t do it without technology. And that, in its own way, is a whole new form of circularity.