GlobalData forecasts that the data centers market will become a $948 billion industry by 2030, up from $466 billion in 2020. They have become fundamental and critical aspects of infrastructure and are increasingly indispensable to business operations. However, while the detrimental environmental impact of these centers is well known, many underestimate the true extent. Climatiq, an open-source climate emissions database start-up, stated that global emissions from cloud computing (2.5% to 3.7%) exceed emissions from commercial flights (2.4%).
Increasingly extreme weather will take its toll
Data centers can only operate efficiently at a certain temperature (between 15°C and 32°C) and so are under constant threat of overheating and experiencing reduced latency and outages in extreme temperatures. This is already happening. A Google Cloud center in London failed in July due to a cooling system failure in the extreme heat.
These centers are increasingly using water cooling as an alternative to energy-intensive refrigeration systems and to reduce costs and emissions. Ian Bitterlin, a chartered engineer specializing in data center power and cooling told the financial times that “the switch to water cooling could cut a data center’s electricity use by 20 percent”.
However, this alternative is not a viable option. With the effects of global warming becoming increasingly noticeable and the temperature of the earth undeniably increasing, not only are we going to see extreme temperatures more often, but the problem of water scarcity is only going to get worse.
Thames Water steps in
Thames Water has launched a probe into the impact of data centers on water supplies in and around London. Large quantities of water are used to cool down servers, as they generate huge amounts of heat. Thames Water has launched this probe as it prepares to impose a hosepipe ban on its 15 million customers after a drought was officially declared in mid-August across much of the UK.
Thames Water has launched this review because of the growing demand for centers, particularly in the Slough area, which is reported to become the second-biggest data center hub in the world. But why?
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Why are we building data centers in places like Slough?
The issue of cooling servers using refrigeration or water is an insufficient band-aid for the existing infrastructure. Instead of developing traditional centers, companies need to start thinking more resourcefully. Microsoft’s Project Natick proved that it was perfectly feasible to build data centers underwater, in the ocean.
In fact, the servers in the underwater data center turned out to be eight times more reliable than those on land. Meta (formerly Facebook) has built data servers 70 miles from the Arctic Circle in Sweden to avoid problems of overheating. An American start-up called Lonestar has even announced it is establishing data centers on the moon and could start offering off-world server capacity as early as 2023. Close proximity is clearly not a vital component of location, so some more outside-of-the-box data center geography planning needs to be undertaken to save water and, ultimately, the planet.