slonme - stock.adobe.com
Microsoft datacentres drank no more water than usual during the summer heatwave, the software giant has claimed, contrary to press reports that portrayed one of its massive European campuses as guzzling scandalously high volumes of drinking water as temperatures across the continent hit record highs.
In July, Microsoft president Brad Smith declared that corporations must become transparent and accountable for their environmental footprint to end the man-made climate crisis that was “putting the human habitability of the planet at risk”.
At the same time, the software giant was issuing a string of befogging statements about water use by a massive datacentre campus it has had under construction for the past eight years in the Netherlands, where vehement green distrust of industrial computing, and a drought so serious that it has made a country of abundant water resources start preparing for an age of scarcity, generated newspaper reports that accused Microsoft of hiding inconvenient truths.
Dutch newspapers accused the software firm of using four times as much water last year than it had told elected officials when it was seeking permission to continue expanding the site.
Echoing around the web at the height of the heatwave, this morphed into a dreadful equation: a fourfold increase in Microsoft water consumption implies that datacentres plus climate change equals catastrophe.
But not only did Microsoft’s datacentres at the Agriport business park in Hollands Kroon consume no more water in this heatwave year than usual, but neither would Europe’s unusually high temperatures “translate to additional water use in the future”, the firm said in a written statement.
As a booming datacentre industry uses growing amounts of water to run the cooling systems that stop its industrial-scale halls of computer components from overheating, alarm has spread around the world in areas where homes, farms and factories have depleted natural water resources to perilously low levels.
The extra water Microsoft used last year was not used to run datacentres, but to construct more of them, the company said. Local officials and utility firms insisted the water that its Agriport datacentres use is minimal.
Datacentres using air-cooling systems, such as Microsoft’s, only use water when outside temperatures are so high that the air is not cool enough to do the job on its own, the company said. In cold, northerly countries such as the Netherlands, temperatures are that high for a few hot hours at the height of summer.
Wildly varying numbers
Microsoft has nevertheless reported such wildly varying numbers for its water use in Agriport that it has stoked a political scandal that stopped at least three rival firms building there and elsewhere in the Netherlands too.
Now the ongoing work and extant building plans of Microsoft and Google – the only datacentre operators in Agriport – are the only construction permitted there.
“It will be a lot more difficult now to get permission than two or three years ago,” said Matthijs Beute, an official responsible for datacentres at Hollands Kroon local council, which championed the development of Agriport into a hyperscale datapark.
“The council members are more critical about it. Ten years ago, all the plans were being granted unanimously. Now it’s more like 50-50. There are more opponents.”
At the centre of the scandal was a statement that Microsoft is said to have made to Hollands Kroon officials last year, on the eve of a democratic vote over its expansion plans: that it used what amounted to 10 times less water than it had been telling water regulators that it would, and four times less than it really did.
Microsoft’s statements put its water use at wildly varying amounts between 10,000m³ and 100,000m³ last year. But this amounted to the equivalent water consumption of only about 100, 700 or 1,000 households, for an industrial site delivering cloud computing services across more than two continents – and one of about 35 sites then running a near hundred-billion-dollar, global cloud computing business.
“It’s a total non-problem,” said Robert Kielstra, director of ECW Energy, which operates water and power infrastructure at Agriport.
“What is 700 households if you supply Microsoft Teams or Bing or Exchange to half of Europe?” he added, referring to the cloud computing services that Microsoft runs from its server farms.
Datacentre water consumption was even falling, said Anneke de Groot, manager for regional water supplier PWN. The 650,000m³ that PWN supplied to industry for cooling in 2020 – most of it to datacentres – amounted to 0.6% of all the water it supplied to North Holland, a province of nearly three million people.
“It’s a ridiculously low amount of water,” said Jack Kranenburg, director of the Agriport business park, referring to the higher estimates attributed to Microsoft’s water use.
“They don’t use much water,” said Jan Willem Huizinga at water board HHNK. “The amounts are really small.”
Microsoft’s North Holland water consumption amounts to between about 0.009% and 0.09% of the province’s municipal supply. The question of its fourfold increase concerned a difference of 0.08%.
Hostile to datacentres
The political climate in the Netherlands, driven by alarm about climate change, nevertheless became so hostile to datacentres in 2021 that it upset the balance of politics in local government where dataparks were earmarked for development, and brought to power political parties opposed to more datacentres being built in a country that, as a major crossroads on the global internet, hosts one of the world’s most prosperous datacentre industries.
Grossly inaccurate estimates of datacentre water consumption, leaked to national newspaper De Telegraaf and its local subsidiary, Noord Hollands Dagblad, in spring 2021 stoked opposition led by green and left-wing activists and political parties vying for power as a weakened, pro-business, centre-right government tried to close the most protracted coalition negotiations in Dutch history.
It claimed that two Hollands Kroon datacentres consumed an incredible 525m³ of water every hour. This was nearly nine times the municipal water consumed by the entire industry in North Holland, comprising 52 datacentres, including 28 in Hollands Kroon, and the whole of Amsterdam, one of Europe’s largest datacentre markets. It was equivalent even to the water consumption of Microsoft’s entire cloud business in 2021, then comprising 35 datacentre campuses in 19 countries.
PWN debunked the estimate. But Noord Hollands Dagblad followed up with an accusation that Microsoft had deceived Hollands Kroon councillors with a false statement of its water consumption, just as they were preparing to vote on its plans to double the size of its campus, and as datacentre opposition was rising in press and parliament.
Microsoft told the council that its Agriport datacentres used only 12,000-20,000m³ of water per year, said a council spokesman.
Application for expansion
But an application Microsoft made in 2018 when planning its expansion works proved that it used 86,000m³ for cooling, claimed Noord Hollands Dagblad. The report, released under Dutch transparency laws, implied that the campus would use 78,000m³ for cooling, but only when it was fully built and operating at capacity – a process than can take a decade.
Then, in April 2022, a year after the vote, Microsoft told Hollands Kroon that it consumed 84,000m³ in 2021 after all. It used 75,000m³ for “operations”, and 9,000m³ for “facilities”, according to an email excerpt seen by Computer Weekly. Another email it wrote to Noord Hollands Dagblad said it used all 75,000m³ for cooling. The 12-20,000m³ it reported to public officials was not a forecast, but only what it was using “at the time”.
Three weeks later, Microsoft contradicted itself again. It used 75,000m³ in 2021 not for cooling but for “operation and construction”, it told Computer Weekly. It used a further 9,000m³ for facilities (“flushing toilets, etc”), making 84,000m³.
Then it said 12,000-20,000m³ had always been a forecast after all. The “mature datacentre” would now consume only 10,000m³. Contrary to reports that its water consumption had increased nearly tenfold, it would decrease tenfold instead, it seemed.
Microsoft refused to say what accounted for the differences. It kept officials guessing as well. Hollands Kroon still believes Microsoft consumed 75,000m³ in cooling last year, though it could not be sure.
Beute said councillors asked for information about cooling, but the council could not tell them because datacentre operators themselves gave only vague information.
“It’s better than nothing,” he said. “But we are encouraging them to be more transparent.”
Read more about datacentre water use
- Utility provider Thames Water is probing the water consumption habits of datacentres within its jurisdiction, as it seeks collaboration opportunities with the server farm industry to ease pressure on supplies.
- Discussions about datacentre sustainability tend to focus on what can be done to make facilities more energy-efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels, as operators look to curb their greenhouse gas emissions and become climate-neutral.
Although local councils have no jurisdiction over water in the Netherlands, where a sophisticated water system is governed by regional boards and managed by private utilities, this has not stopped climate activists halting datacentre construction.
“I can understand why they don’t want to give all the information away,” said Beute. “If you communicate one figure, and the next week you have another figure, you are pinned down to it, and they say, ‘You are lying, or you are cheating’.”
But last year, Microsoft raised the operating temperature of its datacentres, pushing them above standard limits that manufacturers consider the safe maximum temperature for computers. That raised the threshold temperature below which its datacentres could use outside air for cooling without also consuming water, from 27°C to 29.4°C.
Peter Jeffs, a datacentre consultant, said his own models predicted that such a difference would cut by 60% the amount of time in a year that an air-cooled datacentre in Northern Europe would need to use water. Then, when outside temperatures did break the threshold, it would need cooling less.
“Cooling from 35°C to 27°C is going to require a lot more water than cooling from 35°C to 29°C,” he said.
Microsoft said this was one reason why the warming climate would not increase its forecast water use. The higher operating temperature alone might account for Microsoft’s radically lowered forecast, said Mark Acton, an expert helping draft European datacentre regulations.
Meanwhile, Microsoft joined an ECW Energy scheme to collect rainwater from the roofs of its Agriport buildings into an underground store, and to use that when it needs water in the summer. More rainwater comes of the roof of an air-cooled datacentre than it can use itself, said ECW’s Kielstra.
ECW already runs the same system with the huge greenhouse industry for which the business park was originally created, and is attempting to retrofit it on existing datacentres.
Waterless liquid-cooling system
Microsoft also plans to start using a waterless liquid-cooling system on a large scale within two years, it told Dutch water industry newspaper Waterforum last year. Such systems, which pack computer processors tight in tanks of a circulating fluid engineered to cool electrical components, is more efficient because it allows computer chips to run safely at about twice current temperatures, said Gemma Reeves, business manager at cooling firm Alfa Laval.
Current air-cooling systems became possible because the IT industry spent the last 25 years raising the safe temperature thresholds of computers, for the sake of energy efficiency, encouraged by competition to cut costs, and by green initiatives that pre-dated the datacentre industry. The last decade has also seen Greenpeace call on the industry to cut its electricity use and, in turn, its climate-warming carbon emissions.
They increased safe temperature threshold from 18°C to 27°C, said Steve Wright, operations director of 4D Data Centers. The energy ran chillers to cool hot computers. Cutting energy meant a trade-off, said Acton – using water instead.
Johan Blom, the cooling engineer who wrote Microsoft’s permit application, said this had made datacentres 80-90% more energy efficient, while using “much less water”.
Now the 10-year forecasts of increasing average temperatures, against which datacentre designers make cooling estimates, have already been exceeded by the real-world heatwave, said Jeffs.
Microsoft nevertheless vowed last year that by 2030 it would replenish more freshwater sources than it used, as part of a vast programme of conservation measures.
“Humanity depletes the freshwater supply at 4.3 trillion cubic metres every year – the majority for agricultural and industrial uses. This needs to change,” wrote Smith. In April, Microsoft published environmental data that revealed the extent of the challenge, making it one of about four global datacentre operators to be transparent about sustainability, but still not enough to answer questions raised about Agriport.
In the Netherlands, though, as the world averted coronavirus-induced economic and societal collapse in part through services such as Meta’s WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams, and as datacentres grew to accommodate the momentous move of emissions-heavy in-person businesses online, Microsoft’s transparency muddle helped turn the question of whether an industrial datacentre used as much water as 100 or 1,000 households into a national political scandal.
Read more on Datacentre cooling infrastructure
IT Sustainability Think Tank: Risk and resilience – two sides of the same climate coin
Carbon copies: How to stop data retention from killing the planet
Burning up: Mitigation should sustain datacentre operations during extreme heat
IT Sustainability Think Tank: How partnerships can help enterprises reach their green goals