Industrial Water Digital Solutions Americas

Apples and Amazons: Big data players tackle water use

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

With concern mounting over the growing environmental impact of IT, data centres and the cloud, major players are looking to improve their sustainability. While environmental concerns initially focused on energy use, today attention is increasingly drawn to water. Apple is the latest big player in the IT world to push its water stewardship credentials.

The IT water challenge

Close to 30 billion devices are expected to be online by 2030, up from 18.4 billion in 2018, according to a recent report from Nature.

Without intervention and investment, the IT sector’s water and energy use is set to grow by a corresponding amount. To address their environmental impact, data centres, server farms and all the other power-hungry IT hubs will need to take action to reduce water consumption, not just from the power generation that is needed to power them, but the potable water that is used to cool them down.

“Even a medium-sized data centre uses more water than two average 18-hole golf courses.”

Across the US, data centre water consumption is already estimated at 1.7 billion litres per day although not all data centres measure and report their water consumption figures.

Nonetheless, Nature indicates that even a medium-sized data centre uses more water than two average 18-hole golf courses.

A water stewardship plan

As a leading mover in global IT, Apple has long pushed its role in reducing its environmental impact. Since 2018, 100 per cent of the electricity the company has used in its facilities has come from renewable sources and it has installed some 600 MW of renewable energy generation capacity.

In Apple’s 2019 Environmental Sustainability Report, it pledged to reduce freshwater use, improve the quality of discharged water, and demonstrate leadership by protecting shared water resources.

Just over a year later and the company has taken a major step towards it goals at its Prineville, Oregon Data Centre. The site is world’s first data centre to achieve certification by the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) North America to meet its standard.

Located in the high desert of Central Oregon, Apple’s Prineville data centre achieved the milestone by protecting shared water resources across five areas of water governance, including water balance, water quality, important Water-Related Areas, and safe water, sanitation and hygiene.

“AWS certification verifies that the data centre is operating to a water stewardship plan that includes context-based objectives and targets.”

The AWS Standard was used as a framework to benchmark the water stewardship program and developed a site-specific water stewardship plan.

AWS certification verifies that the data centre is operating to a water stewardship plan. This includes context-based objectives and targets for understanding and mitigating water challenges as well as continual improvement.

“The company’s actions at the Prineville site to improve water efficiency and water quality outcomes in the catchment and implement risk mitigation strategies are commendable, and we hope this sets a trend for the data centre sub-sector,” said Matt Howard, director at the Alliance for Water Stewardship North America.

Amazons and Apples

Apple has taken a lead in water stewardship but it is certainly not alone in taking action to improve its water sustainability. Amazon Web Services (also AWS) is another example of a leading IT-based company that it says is executing multiple initiatives to improve water efficiency and reduce the use of potable water for cooling its data centres.

In particular, AWS is increasing its use of treated or recycled wastewater for cooling purposes. In Northern Virginia, for example, the company was the first data centre operator to be approved to use treated wastewater for direct evaporative cooling in a partnership with Loudoun Water.

Similarly, in its US West (Oregon) Region, AWS has partnered with another local utility to use non-potable water for multiple data centres, and is also retrofitting data centres in Northern California to use such water for cooling.

AWS adds that it is working with other local utilities to expand distribution infrastructure and drive faster implementation and adoption of recycled water-cooling applications.

“Unlike Apple, AWS has developed its own water efficiency metrics to assess its progress.”

On-site, modular treatment

Evaluating climate patterns for each operative region, AWS is focused on local water management and availability to select the most efficient method of cooling its data centres, often direct evaporative cooling which significantly reduces energy and water consumption.

During the winter months, outside air is directly supplied to the data centre but during hotter months this air is cooled through an evaporative process. Furthermore, AWS says it also implementing on-site modular water treatment systems in multiple regions.

The treatment systems remove dissolved minerals to allow the water to be reused for more cycles. Unlike Apple, AWS has developed its own water efficiency metrics to assess its progress.

The measures introduced by companies like Apple and Amazon are clearly valid yet remain relatively small compared with total water consumption. As an industry, information and communications technology is on a huge growth trajectory. Action by leaders such as Apple and Amazon set down a marker for others to follow.

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