- UK authorities have launched probes into the water and power consumption of data centres.
- Experts say a reduction in water usage could be an achievable target.
- However, should another extremely hot summer occur, water stress and heat will put additional pressure on data centres.
Thames Water, a British utility company, launched a probe into the impact of data centres on water supplies in and around the London and Slough area in August, at the height of the joint warmest summer on record — the other being 2018. The extreme weather caused temporary failures at Oracle and Google Cloud’s data centres in London.
Water scarcity, combined with the energy insecurity unleashed both by the war in Ukraine and droughts across Europe in the summer, put resource-guzzling data centre operators in an uneasy situation. It has been “the most difficult year”, says Simon Harris, head of critical infrastructure at IT and data centre consultancy Business Critical Solutions.
Drinking water has been “considerably used to cool down data centres’ servers around London, particularly Slough”, John Hernon, Thames Water’s strategic development manager, tells fDi. He notes that “there is increased demand for data centres and we have started a targeted exercise to understand how much water is used by them. Our main objective is to reduce the amount of water required to run a data centre. We want to look at how raw water — non-drinking water — can be used and reused, rather than drinking water.”
Some global data centres operators disclose their annual water consumption. Google reported that it used 6.2 billion gallons of water (23.8 billion litres) in 2021 — more than double the three billion gallons (11 billion litres) in 2017, according to Google's Environmental Report 2022, published in June. Worldwide, the company operates 15 hyperscale data centres, which are those that can scale a distributed computing environment of up to thousands of servers and are normally used for cloud computing.
Experts say a reduction in water usage could be an achievable target. Mr Harris says technological developments into areas such as rainwater harvesting are underway to reduce the impact of potable water consumption. However, in London, data centres can only use clean water as otherwise the system might clog up, the London-based technology trade association TechUK notes. Mr Harris says in London and Slough, where water stress is an issue, the amount of rainfall would not be sufficient for the total water requirement of a reasonably sized data centre, even with the technological development of utilising rainwater.
Globally, data centres consumed 220–320 terawatts per hour (TWh) of electricity in 2021, representing almost 1.5% of global electricity use, according to the International Energy Association’s (IEA's) September 2022 tracking report.
A roundtable was held between the UK government and a group of data centres and telecom providers to discuss contingency measures in the event of a country-wide energy outage, Gary Aitkenhead, senior vice-president of European, Middle Eastern and African International Business Exchange operations at US-based data centre operator Equinix, tells fDi.
Under the government’s most extreme scenario for maintaining the operation of the electricity network, National Grid — the utility company that organises the distribution of electricity and gas across the UK — can restrict the consumption of electricity by industry and commerce, or require rotated disconnections and associated restrictions, which means blackouts.
Currently, “individual data centres have their own contingency plans in case of a blackout, although the government maintains blackouts are unlikely”, a spokesperson for TechUK tells fDi. They note that the industry is working with the UK government to create a standardised industry plan in case of an emergency.
Mr Aitkenhead says that there are substantial contingency plans in place, including back-up energy systems to be deployed in the event of an energy outage.
Lex Coors, chief data centre technology and engineering officer at US data centre operator Digital Realty, says that the company is taking “proactive steps” to mitigate risk by preparing for interruptions to fuel supplies. This includes operational measures, such as “having sufficient supplies of fuel to power back-up generators at each site, as well as establishing service-level agreements with fuel suppliers that stipulate priority delivery of fuel”.
Should another extremely hot summer occur, water stress and heat will put additional pressure on data centres. “The challenge is more with the existing data centres,” says Richard Clifford, head of solutions at UK-based data centre specialist Keysource. He adds that 10% of data centres’ capacity could be lost when data centre infrastructure overheats: “Existing data centres will need to invest in more infrastructure to deal with it.”
Mr Harris and Mr Clifford both agree that the electricity supply is most challenging for the data centres industry. Mr Clifford notes that “some operators struggle with poor control over their commercial models and have gone bust”. According to Glasgow-based modular power supplier Aggreko, in a July survey of 253 UK and Irish data centres (around half of the total, according to directory Cloudscene), 65% had experienced power outages in the previous 18 months. This is one of several issues that has led data centres to see their costs increase by as much as 50% over the past three years.
Mr Harris says that the industry is facing several energy supply chain issues and are compounded by the fact that levels of “demand show no sign of stopping”. According to the IEA, hyperscale data centres account for the energy demand increasing from 10TWh in 2010 to 93TWh in 2022. “Large hyperscale data centres represent huge electricity demand loads, adding pressure to electricity grids and increasing the challenge of energy transitions,” the IEA said.
The EU published proposals on how the data industry sectors could be regulated in 2018. Accordingly, EU countries will set up their strategies to ensure consistency between energy security and climate changes, such as Germany’s draft energy efficiency act, to provide a legal framework for energy efficiency.
Mr Harris notes the whole situation reminds the industry of “the need to heavily self-regulate or be regulated by governments”. He adds that “the UK government would do the same thing as is being done in the European Market”.
This article first appeared in the December 2022/January 2023 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.