Creating Resilience

Alternative Data Center Solutions for Sustainable Water

New hydroelectric technologies support data center operators’ ESG commitments

December 14, 2022 4 Minute Read

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In 2020 and 2021, major data center investors and operators committed to replenish more water than they consume by 2030 through improved water recycling, less water-intensive cooling methods and other strategies.

Several key considerations will impact their ability to meet their ambitious target, including new technologies in development, water shortages facing some major markets and potential climate change impacts.

Water is unique to the data center industry because it is used as a source for electricity (hydropower) as well as for cooling IT equipment. The U.S. benefits from an abundance of raw materials, diverse energy sources and suitable agricultural land, but water shortages still exist.

Traditionally, electricity and water have been critical components of running a successful data center. Most operators require tens of millions of gallons of water for a single facility. Additionally, cooling  IT equipment systems requires large, on-premises pumping and storage facilities.

At the same time, in CBRE’s 2022 Global Data Center Investment Survey, 72% of investors reported that ESG considerations are “highly important” to their overall data center investment strategy.

Figure 1: Data Centers and ESG Considerations

How important are Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) considerations in your overall data center investment strategy?

Source: CBRE 2022 Global Data Center Investment Survey

New technology supporting ESG strategies

Sustainability commitments have spurred data center operators to increase energy efficiency and look to renewable and alternative solutions to conserve power and water. New technologies in development include air-cooled chiller technologies, thermal storage technologies, side stream filtration, reverse osmosis treatment systems and direct liquid cooling systems.

Figure 2: A typical data center evaporative cooling system


Drought mitigation remains a concern

For data centers in arid areas, such as Arizona and Southern California, water supply is always top-of-mind. In Phoenix, a large majority of the water supply is derived from the Salt River Project, which brings water by canal and pipeline from the Salt and Verde Rivers, as well as the Colorado River. In Southern California, the California Aqueduct transports water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Colorado River. Rain and snowfall, the main contributors to water supply, impact the cost of electricity and remain a growing concern due to recurring drought conditions. Sustainable technology has enabled one major hyperscaler in Phoenix to fill its chilled water loop once without running new water or sewer lines from the data center.

In contrast, some major markets in the Midwest (Dallas, Chicago) and Southeast (Atlanta, Northern Virginia) benefit from access to abundant groundwater and local surface water. Other major data center markets including Seattle and Central Washington; Hillsboro, Oregon;  Montreal and Toronto all utilize hydropower as a key contributor to the electricity supply.

Figure 3: Electricity supply sources from different markets

Emerging markets linked to water availability

As development of data centers continues to migrate closer to the end-user, markets such as Hillsboro, Oregon, and Columbus, Ohio, are well-positioned due to their climates and ample water supply.

In 2023, data center operators will look to collaborate with municipalities and community leaders to increase their focus on water conservation. This will be catalyzed by institutional investors’ increased demand for prioritizing ESG consideration—both at existing data centers and newly developed facilities.

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