Why AT&T and Environmental Defense Fund Are Working To Reduce Water Use

cell phone waterBy John Schulz, Director of Sustainability Operations at AT&T

In a given day, my cell phone plays the role of alarm clock, navigation system and personal assistant.  The next day it is my meteorologist and entertainment system. Oh, and I also use it to communicate with co-workers, business partners, friends and family.  It’s so thoroughly a part of my daily routine that I rarely stop to think about what makes it all work. Recently though, I’ve been looking into a resource that helps make it all work but is rarely, if ever, discussed. It’s water.

This idea of “embedded water” represents the sum of the water that is used in every step of a product’s life cycle. You usually hear about embedded water related to food and drink, and that is fairly intuitive because crops demand water, but there seems to be less public dialogue about the embedded water in other items we use each day like electronics and communications technologies.

In the case of my phone, there is embedded water in manufacturing it and delivering it. There is also embedded water in using it. How? Every time a phone – or any other device – connects to a network that signal flows through a complex maze of equipment that is housed in a diverse collection of facilities. These facilities house the equipment that makes the 21st century digital economy and lifestyle possible, but the equipment demands electricity to run and throws off substantial heat in the process.  It’s critical to keep the equipment cool, and the mechanical gear used to accomplish that climate control frequently uses water. My colleague Tim Fleming, Senior Energy Manager, explains the link between building cooling and water in this video. In fact, the EPA estimates that a full quarter of the daily water of U.S. buildings is used by cooling systems.

To address this challenge, AT&T and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) joined forces. To start reducing the water used in AT&T’s operations, and thus the water embedded in using our phones and network, AT&T and EDF are running cooling efficiency pilots to identify best practices in three categories: better water treatment technologies, improved operational practices and increased use of “free air” cooling. Our hope is that we will identify concrete ways to reduce AT&T’s 3.4 billion gallon water footprint, and announce the results of our pilot in early 2013. We anticipate finding ways to save millions of gallons of water per year for AT&T, and potentially billions of gallons if the solutions are adopted by other industries.

Understanding and reducing the water embedded in products and services is one of the keys to the future of water management. We are looking forward to adding to the understanding of embedded water as we share the results of our pilots. The great part about this effort is that there are so many buildings that use water in their cooling process, and they’ll all be able to utilize the techniques and tools we uncover during our work with EDF. And that’s what this is really all about: reducing the water used to cool the buildings in which we live and work every day, helping us to be as efficient as possible with the amount of “embedded water” in our lives.

[image credit: Peter Kemmer: Flickr cc]

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