U.S. data centers and civil water disputes raise questions Microsoft alone uses 2500,<> Olympic swimming pools a year
◎ Reporter Zhang Jiaxin
Residents of The Dalles, a small town in Oregon, USA, live in a paradox: despite its well-watered location along the Columbia River, the climate is desert-like, with little rain and temperatures of almost 48°C in the summer of two years ago.
Water constraints have plagued the town's 15000,25 residents for some time. Earlier this year, they finally learned, in their dismay, that more than <> percent of the total consumption of this precious resource went to Google's data centers, which use it to cool the thousands of computers in its infrastructure network.
According to local media outlet Oregon Live, water usage in Google's data centers has nearly doubled in the past five years, and Google plans to open two more data centers along the Columbia River. Environmentalists warn that this could affect the flora and fauna in the area and even lead to water shortages for farmers in The Dalles.
In fact, this is not an isolated case. According to the Spanish newspaper El País, the United States concentrates about 30% of the world's data centers. But many experts around the world are well aware of the insatiable demand for water in this infrastructure. The latest water consumption data raises more questions about the sustainability and environmental hazards posed by the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and related technologies.
Tech giants become "drinking monsters"
Last year, Microsoft's data centers alone used the equivalent of more than 2500,4 Olympic swimming pools. That same year, Microsoft became the target of public scrutiny in the Netherlands after reports that one of the company's local data centers was using more than four times the previously disclosed maximum water consumption.
In Germany, the Brandenburg authorities refused to allow Google to build data centers in the area because the Tesla Gigafactory was already consuming too much water.
In September, a study by Ren Shaolei, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of California, Riverside, and his team found that data centers consume about 9 milliliters of water every time a user asks five to 5 questions to an AI system such as ChatGPT.
According to data provided by Google, Google's water consumption increased by 2022% in 20; Microsoft, which owns a 75% stake in OpenAI, increased its water consumption by 34% over the same period. These two companies, plus Amazon, control nearly half of the world's super data centers (i.e., centers with more than 5000,<> servers).
In 2022, US technology company Meta increased its water consumption by 2.7%. Meta plans to open a mega data center in Spain, which will reportedly consume more than 6 million litres of drinking water per year.
How water is consumed
A data center is similar to an industrial warehouse with multiple rooms, each with rows of racks that are about the height of a refrigerator. These racks are arranged in the aisles to allow the operator to operate the circuitry of each machine.
Servers dissipate heat, and having all the equipment in one place exacerbates this effect. The machine must be kept cool so as not to overheat, and ventilation systems can do this, but it is cheaper to cool the processor with water. For every 1 kWh of server power consumed by a cooling tower, it typically consumes 1-4 liters of water, and in summer it can even be as high as 9 liters. Data centers already account for at least 2% of the world's total energy consumption.
Ren Shaolei said that about 20% of the water in the cooling system (unevaporated water) is discharged into the wastewater treatment plant at the end of the cycle. This water contains a lot of minerals and salts and cannot be used by humans if it is not treated.
The average water consumption of a data center is difficult to determine. Cooler data centers require less water for cooling; Similarly, the need for water is different during the hottest and coldest times of the year. They do, though, need to use clean, treated water to avoid clogged pipes and bacterial growth. When seawater or reclaimed water is used, it must be purified before it can be fed into the cooling system. In the case of Google, nearly 90 percent of its consumption in the United States comes from drinking water sources, Ren said.
The solution to the problem still seems far away
AI technology is in its infancy, but is there a way to train AI models without consuming a lot of water? Theoretically, it is also possible to do without water in this process, but it will be very difficult, Ren Shaolei believes.
Currently, many technology companies are fully committed to plans to improve the efficiency of their systems. Meta's new data center, which Meta plans to develop specifically for AI, will use an electric drying system that does not require water. Microsoft said in a statement that it aims to become carbon negative by 2030. Similarly, Google's 2023 environmental report highlights the company's goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2030.
Voices calling for a reduction in the use of digital tools are also emerging. However, Anna Valdivia, professor of artificial intelligence, government and policy at the Oxford Internet Institute, argues that digital "de-growth" is not the solution, and that it would be a mistake to hold consumers accountable for this water consumption. In the case of public transportation, there is also the option of walking or taking the bus without driving, but when it comes to AI development, people have no choice but data centers.