Now an important part of modern computing, data centers help people stream movies on Netflix, transact on PayPal, post updates on Facebook, store trillions of photos, and more. But a single facility can also churn out millions of gallons of water per day to keep hot-moving appliances cool.
Google wants to build at least two more data centers in The Dalles, worrying some residents who fear there won’t eventually be enough water for everyone – including the area’s farms and fruit orchards, which until now largest users.
Across the United States, there has been some mild pushback as tech companies build and expand data centers – the conflict is likely to escalate as water becomes a more precious resource amid the threat of climate change and as cloud computing grows. demand increases. Some tech giants are using cutting-edge research and development to find less-effective cooling methods, but there are others who say companies can still do more to be more environmentally sustainable.
According to the US Drought Monitor, the concerns are understandable in The Dales, the seat of Wasco County, which is suffering from extreme and exceptional droughts. Last summer the region endured its hottest days on record, reaching 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48 Celsius) in The Dales.
Dales is adjacent to the mighty Columbia River, but the new data centers won’t be able to use that water and will instead have to take water from rivers and groundwater that has gone through the city’s water treatment plant.
However, snowpack in the nearby Cascade Range that feeds aquifers varies wildly from year to year and glaciers are melting. Most aquifers in north-central Oregon are shrinking, according to the US Geological Survey Groundwater Resources Program.
Increasing uneasiness: 15,000 city residents don’t know how much water the proposed data centers will use, as Google calls it a trade secret. Even city councilors who voted on the motion on November 8 had to wait until this week to find out.
Dave Anderson, public works director for The Dales, said Google acquired the rights to 3.9 million gallons of water per day when it previously bought the home for an aluminum smelter. Anderson said Google is requesting less water than that amount for new data centers and will transfer those rights to the city.
“The city comes next,” he said.
For its part, Google said it is “committed to the long-term health of the county’s economy and natural resources.”
“We are excited that we are continuing to negotiate with local authorities on an agreement that allows us to continue growing while supporting the community,” Google said, adding that the expansion proposal includes a way to store water and increase supplies. Includes potential aquifer program. drying period.
The US hosts 30 percent of the world’s data centers, more than any other country. Some data centers are trying to become more efficient in water consumption, for example by recycling the same water through a center multiple times before discharging. Google uses treated sewage water to cool its facility in Douglas County, Georgia, instead of using drinking water, as many data centers do.
Facebook’s first data center took advantage of the cold high-desert air in Prineville, Oregon, to cool its servers, and went a step further and built a center near the Arctic Circle in Lulia, Sweden.
Microsoft has also placed a small data center resembling a giant cigar on the seafloor of Scotland. Last year after retrieving the barnacle-encrusted container two years later, company employees saw an improvement in overall reliability because the servers were not subject to temperature fluctuations and corrosion from oxygen and humidity. Team leader Ben Cutler said the experiment shows that data centers can be kept cool without exploiting freshwater resources.
A study published in May by researchers at Virginia Tech and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showed that a fifth of data centers rely on water from moderate to highly stressed watersheds.
Study co-author Landon Marston, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, said tech companies typically consider tax breaks and the availability of cheap electricity and land.
Marston said they need to consider the impacts of water more seriously and place facilities in areas where they can be better maintained for both the good of the environment and their own bottom line.
“It’s also a risk and resilience issue that data centers and their operators face, as the drought we’re seeing in the West is expected to get worse,” Marston said.
About an hour’s drive east of The Dales, Amazon is giving back some of the water it uses to its large data centers. The sprawling Amazon campus, spread between Boardman and Umatilla, Oregon, butts up against farmland, a cheese factory, and neighborhoods. Like many data centers, they primarily use water in the summer, with the servers air-cooled the rest of the year.
About two-thirds of the water used by the Amazon evaporates. The rest is treated and sent to irrigation canals that feed crops and pastures.
Umatilla City Manager Dave Stockdale appreciates that farms and ranches are getting that water, as the main issue with the city as Amazon facilities grew was that the city’s water treatment plant could not handle the discharge to the data centers. could.
John DeVoe, executive director of Oregon’s Waterwatch, which seeks reform of water laws to protect and restore rivers, criticized this as a “feeling corporate good strategy”.
“Does this really make up for any harm to the actual use of server farm water over other interests that are using the same source water as the environment, fish and wildlife?” Devo said.
Amazon Web Services CEO Adam Selipsky stressed that Amazon feels a sense of responsibility for its impacts.
“We have been very conscious about the use of water in any of these projects intentionally,” he said, adding that the Center should bring economic activity and employment to the region.
Don Rasmussen, who lives on the outskirts of The Dales, worries that his city is making a mistake in negotiating with Google, comparing it to David vs. Goliath.
He has watched his well water level year after year and worries that sooner or later there won’t be enough for everyone.
“At the end of the day, if there isn’t enough water, who will win?” He asked.