AI threatens to cause more water shortages

Every day we send messages by WhatsApp or email, we check the GPS, we spend time scrolling through our social networks or we watch a series on some platform. That is, part of our life takes place in the digital world, but do we know exactly what impact each of these actions has? Behind all digital data and algorithms is a basic infrastructure: data centers. Practically since the Internet existed, calculations have been made of the electrical consumption of these digital farms, but their water footprint, also high, is becoming the new headache for large technology companies.

Partly the “blame” lies with generative AI. And at the end of 2023, a group of researchers from the University of California published a study in which they stated that the famous GPT Chat consumes approximately one liter of water for every 10-100 queries it answers. To train the GPT3 version of generative AI, between 700,000 and 4.9 million liters of clean fresh water were consumed (they took into account direct consumption, that is, the water used to cool the data centers, and indirect consumption, the resource used by the supply chain and by the associated energy production plants). Although they do not contemplate the use of GPT4, they affirm that their water footprint will be greater due to having greater processing capacity. “The lack of awareness about ChatGPT's resource consumption is a major problem,” said Shaolei Ren, lead researcher on the study. In it, the sustainability reports of some of the large technology companies have also been analyzed to reach the conclusion that “in general, between 2021 and 2022, the use of water in Google's data centers increased by 20% . That of Microsoft, which partially hosts ChatGPT, by 34%,” they say.

At this point, the question posed by CNBC is interesting: “Is digitalization going from being an alternative for the decarbonization of the economy, as it has been presented since the 1990s, to becoming another devourer of resources?” . «It is curious that while AI applications and digital solutions appear to combat some of the current environmental challenges, their impacts have not been taken into account as much. They have sold us the concept of a cloud as something friendly that is in the sky, is ethereal, and some problems that algorithms bring with them have been studied, such as the issue of bias or opacity. However, little research has been done on its material impact in terms of water consumption, electricity or waste generation. Our daily life is increasingly more digital, so it is not difficult to understand that electricity and water consumption will increase worldwide no matter how much data centers become sustainable,” says Ana Valvidia, professor of AI, government and policies at the Oxford Internet Institute.

The case of Talavera de la Reina

In recent years, large technology companies are facing the emergence of social movements that protest against the installation of their centers. It has happened in Chile, in Holland, Ireland, and even in Spain. More specifically in Talavera de la Reina. When Meta announced the installation of a data center in the town, it stated that it would require 665 million liters of drinking water per year and this in a context of water scarcity such as the one the Peninsula has been experiencing for 40 months raised blisters. However, at the end of 2023 the company announced that they could reduce this figure by 24%, to 504 liters per year. The news came months after a report from the Tajo Hydrographic Confederation that states that there is a limited availability of resources in the region, according to El País. « The first conflict that appeared in the media occurred in the Dutch town of Hollandse Kroon. In the midst of an unusual heat wave in northern Europe, it was published that the data center installed by Microsoft absorbed 84,000 m3 of water (33 Olympic swimming pools), instead of the 20,000 planned. The outcry from citizens already threatened by supply restrictions highlighted a problem that had been overlooked. Something similar has just happened in the US. Google installed one of its huge data centers in The Dalles on the banks of the Columbia River. The city, of about 15,000 inhabitants, is located in the dry zone in the east of the state of Oregon and has suffered several episodes of water restrictions. The installation's computers absorb 25% of the water supplied to the population and the company plans to at least double its data center upstream, which has caused alarm and protests from the population,” the Foundation explains on its website. We Are Water (an organization to which several NGOs such as Unicef ​​or the Vicente Ferrer Foundation belong).

Data centers have to operate 24/7, 365 days a year, consuming electricity, especially to cool the equipment and ensure that it works at an adequate temperature so as not to alter its operation. Years ago, fans were used with smaller equipment, but the heat of the new processors has led to the use of cooling towers that use water as a heat exchanger. Potable water is used to avoid problems in the pipelines (hence part of the protests). In the best case, water is recycled over and over again in a closed circuit, but there is always some part that evaporates. «Consumption depends on the size of the center, the technology it uses and the outside temperature. That is, more complex algorithms such as those of generative AI, more consumption and a higher outside temperature, more need for cooling (and more electricity consumption). ),” explains Valdivia from Oxford. In fact, the calculation says that a search on Chat GPT can consume up to 10 times more resources than a query on Google and an hour of video conferencing requires between two and 12 liters.

A study by Cornell University states that global demand for AI may need between 4.2 and 6.6 billion cubic meters of fresh water by 2027; an amount equivalent to half the annual water consumption of the United Kingdom. In the US it is already one of the 10 industries that consume the most water and in Europe data centers already consume about 820 million m3 of water annually. Regarding energy consumption, at European level it will grow by 3.21% by 2030. «Ireland has tripled the use of electricity by data centers, representing 14% of total consumption in 2022. Denmark predicts that energy use by the sector will triple by 2025 and represent approximately 7% of the total” according to data from Spain DC, the data center association in Spain.

According to its director Manuel Giménez: «We are going to see how the facilities grow in the US and China, but also in Europe due to digitalization and decarbonization projects. In Spain it can be said that there are 18 MW installed but the forecasts (made at the beginning of 2023) are that 620 MW will be reached in 2026. The forecasts predate the appearance of generative AI applications, so it could exceed these forecasts if demand and reindustrialization processes demand it. Will this pose a problem for energy or water resources? Giménez is clear that not: «Our country has a serious problem because energy is not consumed. Industrial electricity demand fell in 2023 to 2003 levels and we have ambitious renewable production targets, but demand must be encouraged. The use of water in data centers is residual. The sector is aware of the scarcity and uses water in a closed circuit: that is, it is collected once and recharged only when necessary. In volume it may be the equivalent of several Olympic swimming pools, but consumption is residual, like that of other industrial sectors or the agricultural sector,” he concludes.

The project

Is it possible to take advantage of waste heat from data centers?

And instead of cooling the servers, could the heat from the data centers be reused simply by taking it where it is needed? It's what you want to do in London. At the end of the year, the municipality received 36 million pounds from the English government Green Heat Network fund to develop a heat network that will take advantage of excess temperatures in data centers. The aim is to provide renewable heating to 10,000 homes in the districts of Hammersmith and Fulham, Brent and Ealing. In addition, it is one of the five ecological heating projects that are being developed throughout the country. The authorities in Stockholm (Sweden) also want to take advantage of this resource that otherwise ends up in the atmosphere. To do this, it has a public-private initiative called Open District Heating. By 2022 the entity had partnered with 20 cloud service providers, etc., recovering enough heat to heat 30,000 apartments in one year.