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Just How Much Water Are Silicon Valley Data Centers Guzzling?

(CBS SF) -- As the California drought lingers on and the threat of rising water rates becomes reality, Silicon Valley companies are looking for alternative methods to keep its computer farms cool.

The machines that hold everything from Facebook photos to viral YouTube videos, ATM transactions and medical records require large amounts of water to keep the servers from overheating.

Agriculture in California accounts for 80 percent of water consumption, making it easier for data centers to pass under the radar of California's tightening water restrictions. And since water use isn't factored into the power usage effective standard to gauge the efficiency of computer facilities, water conservation efforts are often less prioritized. Plus, water is often cheaper than using electricity for more traditional air conditioned cooling methods.

But with California home to more 800 data centers, the most of any state, it's a considerable amount of water for an increasingly thirsty state.

The state's data centers alone guzzle about as much 158,000 Olympic sized swimming pools in one year.

On average water-cooled server farms use about 3.5 million gallons per megawatts (MW) each year, according Green Grid board member Jack Pouchet. Decent-size data centers can range in scale from 5MW to 30MW.

A midsize data center (15 MW) alone uses as much as 100 acres of almond trees, or three average hospitals, according to the Wall Street Journal -- and that's just for computer chips.

Some companies worried about the water crisis and potentially rising costs are shifting to less water-intensive cooling methods.

Vantage Data Center in Santa Clara, for example, is using an alternative cooling method. While two of the company's centers are cooled by a conventional system that sends cold water through the server room, the third pulls cool air in from outside when the conditions are right.

Then Santa Clara-based Digital Realty recently launched an internal water conservation challenge by working with local water utilities to determine where and how it can use recycled rather than drinkable water in its cooling systems.

Google is trying a similar approach by harvesting water from rain, canals and other non-potable sources.

The search engine giant, Facebook and some other companies are also relocating some of its data centers altogether to climates where facilities can be cooled by the outside air year-round such as Sweden and Finland.

Looking ahead, Pouchet said it's time for California with its plethora of renewable energy to consider building the all-electric data center that does not use any water for cooling. "

Perhaps we should stop worrying about electricity consumption when we can drive water use to zero," Pouchet said. "We have the technology available today. With proper tax credits and utility incentives we can retro-fit existing facilities to significantly reduce or eliminate water consumption. "

Nicole Jones is a digital producer for CBS San Francisco. Follow her musings @nicjonestweets


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