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By Ryan Walker

In today’s modern world, there have been a lot of revolutionary innovations that allow us to live the way we do -- automobiles, electronics ... and air conditioning. Although cooling systems may not be widely considered by the average person, they have perhaps had the greatest influence globally on where and how humans live.

Lets dig a bit deeper.

The advent of cooling systems has resulted in widespread impacts on land use, health and economics. Urbanization and other modern land development patterns would not be possible without air conditioning, especially in those burgeoning desert locales -- think: Phoenix and Dubai. Urban areas trap hot air, creating heat islands. Air conditioning mitigates these effects, allowing higher density. Moreover, before the widespread use of cooling systems at an individual scale, residential buildings were specifically constructed so as to take advantage of weather conditions or water sources. Now, even in very hot climates, houses on a hilltop in direct sun are commonplace.

Cooling systems also have vital health impacts. For example, you have cooling systems to thank for being able to preserve perishable food. And we may be less likely to be hospitalized if we own an air conditioner.

Finally, the global economy now relies on cooling systems as an important cog to maximize efficiency in the supply chain. Climate-controlled warehouses and centers allow for mass production and storage of goods, such as maintaining the integrity of wood products. Buildings and facilities that are too hot and uninhabitable have also been shown to lead to a reduction of output by employees.

So, you can thank air conditioning for many of the luxuries we experience on a daily basis. Now you can add digital data storage to that list, because it also requires a lot of cooling.

The air conditioning and digital data pact

We all take digital data for granted as an easier storage method and one that is more environmentally friendly. We have effectively reduced the need for paper, transportation for data delivery and material items by replacing them with bytes. While that holds true, digital storage requires large inputs of resources, primarily electricity and water. One reason: data centers.

But isn’t all of our data up in the “cloud”? Well yes, but all of that data still has to be stored somewhere physically, creating a need for digital data storage and centralized IT operations facilities -- otherwise known as data centers. According to SAP, data centers are the “brain of the company." Everything from digital documents, to videos and photos, to Facebook posts are stored somewhere, and that place could be anywhere on the planet. It could be an office server or an enormous industrial warehouse.

Think about your computer for a moment. Not a tablet but one with a hard drive. Does it get warm? The answer should be yes. You are instructed in the fine print to store the computer in a cool location. Now if you work in an office setting and have a server, consider where it is located. Typically, servers are located in a room that is kept at a much cooler temperature. Now multiply your home or office data storage needs by millions or even billions of other people. The amount of storage needed is staggering.

Using water to post to the cloud

So, we’ve established that there is tons of data out there that is stored in various-sized data centers. Data centers can be huge, in some cases more than 100,000 square feet of hot machines, and require a lot of cooling power. What do all these systems need to operate their cooling systems? You guessed it: water!

In addition to electricity, of which cooling consumes about a third of the energy at a typical data center, the amount of water used by such facilities is staggering. Amazon indicates that a 15-megawatt center (large, but not atypical) may use up to 360,000 gallons of water a day, almost entirely to supply chillers. The NSA Security Center, of over 1 million square feet, in Utah requires up to 1.7 million gallons of water a day. In terms of water resource depletion, data centers are a huge consumer. As more and more individuals, governments and businesses rely on off-site data storage for day-to-day activities, we need more machines in enormous facilities to store it.

The lesson here is that no resource is free. It seems that many people believe there to be very little resource use tied to technology, aside from the electronic device itself. As we can see with data centers, that could not be further from the truth. While going back to non-electronic storage is not the solution, we should consider that any material use requires some input of natural resources. Therefore, the ability for data centers to reduce water use will be critical to water conservation.

Data centers: A key to water conservation

As fresh water becomes scarcer around the globe, conservation becomes more important. Sustainability is predicated on the availability of water, and the results will be dire if we cannot protect this resource. So, how do we answer this water-usage dilemma?

The first step is probably to pinpoint areas that would be better suited to supporting the center’s needs. Several of the largest data centers are located in one of the drier developed areas of the world – the American Southwest. The largest single collection of data centers in the world, with ongoing expansion, is currently situated in Las Vegas and operated by the Switch Co. And another of the largest centers in the world is located in Phoenix. A real head scratcher, right?

Another focus area should be on the numerous innovative trends in production efficiency. In Quincy, Washington, Microsoft has constructed a water treatment plant at its data center site, which will facilitate water reuse. The plant takes non-potable water and uses it in the data center before returning it to the local aquifer and municipal system. Millions of gallons of water may be saved.

In a similar effort, Google has constructed a water treatment plant at its data center near Atlanta, which takes greywater, treats it for use in the data center and returns it to the nearby river. Google is also working to reduce water usage in its data centers through “free-cooling” techniques. That is, facilities are cooled by systems utilizing outside air or other methods to take advantage of local climate conditions when possible.

At Facebook’s data center in Prineville, Oregon, the company is exercising several methods to reduce water use, including working with local municipalities, using grey water and capturing water droplets that would otherwise evaporate. Perhaps most importantly, Facebook has posted an online dashboard displaying water efficiency for all to see and other data centers to benchmark against.

Yet another organization using new technologies is the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) located in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which reduces water use through the design of its cooling towers as well as site landscaping, such as native species planting. The center houses data related to earth science and was named “Green” Data Center of the Year in 2013 by Datacenter Dynamics.

These few examples point to a flourishing mass of “green” data centers developing in response to resource conservation needs. At the end of the day, the luxury of digital data and storage provides a lot of value to people as well as the environment. For one, the need for paper or other types of data storage is reduced. Also, digital data can be stored in a much smaller footprint. The convenience of electronic access to data is undeniable, and the wealth of shared information internationally available is a tremendous asset. Overall, digital data storage is a positive feature to sustaining our planet, so long as risks such as water usage can be kept in check.

The current innovations are only the beginning. Businesses see the value in reducing long-term cost while protecting source water (i.e. risk management) and the environment. The building blocks are there for sustainability in the data storage industry. There are promising innovations out there and more coming along every day. Let's hope that path persists and other industries continue the trend to support solutions for water’s sake.

Image credit: 1) Mentora 2) Flickr/Intel Free Press

Ryan Walker is a degree candidate in the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program at Virginia Tech, expecting to graduate in May 2015. He currently works for a non-profit land trust, helping to conserve land through acquisition and easement as well as assisting municipalities in land planning for open space preservation, trails, and conservation development.

Virginia Tech CLiGS headshotVirginia Tech CLiGS

This blog series, written by graduate students and faculty at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), focuses on lessons learned about the leadership and innovation strategies that business, government, and civil society stakeholders are using to influence important environmental and natural resource systems, including water, food, climate, energy, and biodiversity.

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