Google Data Centers’ Secret Cost

Google is building more data centers across the U.S. to power online searches, web advertising and cloud services. These data center facilities use billions of gallons of water, sometimes in dry areas that are struggling to conserve this limited public resource.

“The race for data centers to keep up with it all is pretty frantic, they can’t always make the most environmentally best choices.”
– Kevin Kent, CEO of consulting firm Critical Facilities Efficiency Solutions

Google relies on “evaporative cooling”, according to its environmental report, which evaporates water to cool the air around the processing units stacked inside data centers. The most common systems are energy intensive, known as computer room air conditioners. Evaporative cooling uses less energy, but the process requires more water, and in many places, the energy costs are much higher but water’s cheap. Operators will often embrace the thirstier approach because it’s less expensive.

In its 2019 environmental report, Google argued that reducing its energy use also makes it more water-efficient. “Generating electricity requires water, so the less energy we use to power our data centers, the less water we use as well,” the report said.

However, a principal engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Otto Van Geet as data center experts say there’s usually a trade-off between water and energy use. “If the water consumption goes down, energy consumption goes up and vice versa”.

Google has paid more attention to water use in recent years. It relies on recycled water or seawater where it can to avoid using drinking water or draining local supplies. Google also says it saves water by recirculating it through cooling systems multiple times. In Mesa, the company is working with authorities on a water credits program, but said it’s too early to share more details.

“We strive to build sustainability into everything we do. We’re proud that our data centers are some of the most efficient in the world, and we have worked to reduce their environmental impact even as demand for our products has dramatically risen.”
– Gary Demasi, Senior Director of Energy and Location Operations at Google.