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This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.

Wasatch Front data centers are thirsty for water, and in a drought that’s a bad look

Great Salt Lake Collaborative, CEO Wes Swenson, July 11, 2022 - DO NOT REUSE
Rick Egan
The Salt Lake Tribune
CEO Wes Swenson talks about the cooling system for the server room at Novva, in West Jordan, Tuesday, June 14, 2022. Compared to most massive data centers, the company uses a fraction of the water

The usual drought talk about clouds asks when and where it will rain. Not this time. We’re still talking about the cloud, but now we’re focused on the computers that power it — and the water used to cool them.

The Wasatch Front is home to some 25 large data centers. These centers, where cloud data is stored and processed, are central to the way we use our smartphones and other internet technology. The always-on servers can heat up quickly, and as Salt Lake Tribune reporter Leia Larsen notes, most of them use evaporative cooling to keep humming along.

Over in West Jordan though, Larsen found that Novva Data Center is taking a different approach — one that’s part environmental stewardship and shrewd business management.

“The bigger factor for them is they need to be in control, and they have no control over Utah's droughts,” she said. “They have no control over their water rates going up because we don't have enough.”

Novva uses a fraction of the water that Utah facilities like the National Security Administration and Facebook consume.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Pamela McCall: What's Novva doing to keep their servers cool?

Leia Larson: They went online in January and they've used about a million gallons of water between January and May. So they don't use evaporative cooling. They had designed their own system instead of using water, they kind of use like an air conditioning system. They use refrigerant that cycles around. But what's also interesting about them is they take advantage of Utah's climate. In the colder months, they actually just pull the hot air using fans out of their server area and then they bring in ambient air from outside. And so that results in a lot of savings of water.

PM: Which data facilities in Utah use the most water and how much?

LL: The NSA data center, which is the National Security Administration, their data center definitely uses the most. I requested data from Bluffdale City, which provides their water, and we learned that they used about 128 million gallons in a year. That would support about 2,100 people. Then the next largest facility would be Facebook. Facebook is the same size as Novva. It's about a million square feet, but they used about a tenth of the water, about 13.5 million gallons.

GRAPH: Utah data center water use, July 11, 2022

PM: You write that Facebook and the NSA are both taking steps to reduce their water use and give back to the community. What are they doing?

LL: Facebook — I think they're aware that people are concerned about not just the water that these data centers consume, but also the electricity. They do have a significant environmental impact. So Facebook has done some things to mitigate its water consumption. One of them is working with the local water district to basically pay them not to create hydropower in the summer. And that means they're not diverting it out of streams. They're keeping it in the river, which keeps the river cooler for fish. It benefits fish habitat.

PM: Why has Novva decided to go with a different system when, as you mentioned in your article, water is so cheap here? 

LL: They want to be good stewards of the environment — at least that's what they told me. But the bigger factor for them is they need to be in control, and they have no control over Utah's droughts. They have no control over their water rates going up because we don't have enough. So if they can eliminate their dependence on water, that's just one less thing they have to worry about.

PM: What would it take for Facebook, the NSA — and for Google, for that matter, who’s planning to build a data center in Eagle Mountain — to implement the kind of system Novva has?

LL: Just investment, and I think they are looking at all kinds of solutions. They know that they use a lot of water. The NSA did tell me that they're exploring water-free cooling. It'll be interesting to follow up in a couple of years to see if they go through with that.

PM: Are they going to make that choice on their own or will higher water rates be what pushes them?

LL: I think higher water rates will certainly help nudge that. I think the public scrutiny. People are worried about their data centers and their environmental footprint. So I think, you know, they do pay attention to public pressure. So I think just keeping an eye on them and holding them to account may be what does it.

Pamela is KUER's Morning Edition Host.
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