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CyrusOne sustainability chief Myers tackles water issues at DCD>San Francisco

September 30, 2021

At Data Center Dynamics Ltd.’s DCD>San Francisco conference, CyrusOne Senior Director of Environmental Health, Safety and Sustainability Kyle Myers highlighted the vital and impactful leadership roles CyrusOne and the data center industry now play in addressing issues of water scarcity.

The Sept. 21-23 conference focused on the evolution of hyperscale and its impact on the data center industry. Myers joined Equinix Executive Vice President of Global Operations Raouf Abdel, Excool Ltd. Chief Commercial Officer Jon Pettitt and Texas Tech University Professor and Director of Water Resources Center Venkatesh Uddameri on a panel entitled: “In a land plagued by water scarcity, how should data centers address stewardship?”

Moderator DCD Chief Operating Officer Dan Loosemore kicked-off the discussion asking the panel what their specific industries and companies are doing to help solve water scarcity issues. Myers noted CyrusOne’s long focus on water issues.

“We first look at any markets we are going into that are water-stressed,” he said. “If we know we’re going into a high-stress region, it’s something we pay particular attention to. Our base design is water consumption-free cooling — we don’t consume water as part of the cooling activities at our campuses, at least based on our standard design. So that means we only consume water for irrigation or grey water use.”

He also added perspective on the water scarcity problem.

“There is a lot of focus on climate change, as there should be, and climate change is obviously a global issue,” Myers said. “But water scarcity is a local issue. If you operate in an area where water is plentiful, it’s probably not a big issue. But if you operate in an area where water is not as plentiful — that’s where we all have to look at best practices within the data center industry.”

Loosemore wondered what drives CyrusOne’s focus on water issues.

“We all feel accountability — climate change is real,” Myers replied. “Customers, shareholders employees, board members and communities are all putting more emphasis on use and re-use of resources. For us, the story started with moving into a market where there was water scarcity and the local planning commission said ‘use all the power you want, but you can’t use water.’ That made us start thinking about a market like that and what design might work.”

In particular, customers have driven change.

“There’s been an increased focus, especially in the last two years, from the customer base,” Myers said. “It used to be climate change and that’s all you’d hear, maybe a little about green buildings. But now, we hear about water scarcity… we just got a four-page questionnaire with maybe 40 questions just on water from a potential customer and a large company. So we know it’s top-of-mind for a lot of organizations.”

But reducing total water use can get some help from efforts to increase renewable electricity.

“Moving directionally toward less water consumption per kilowatt hour of power delivered to the servers — the WUE metric — has got to be the focus,” Myers said. “But it’s not just the water used on-site, it’s also the water used to make the electricity. One great thing is renewable power sources, like solar panels and wind power — water consumption on those is zero, at least according to the accounting methods. If you’re able to pair renewable power with zero or low water cooling, you can get to zero water consumption across cooling as well as carbon-free power.”

It’s a constantly moving target, given the data center industry now grows 10% to 15% annually.

“If you assume that we’ll continue that line of growth in the next 20 years, by 2040, 80% of the data centers that we’ll have haven’t even been built yet,” Myers added. “So, there’s huge opportunity to leverage technology, innovations, see what others are investing in, trying out new technologies. I think that’s going to be the future of how we make a difference, make water scarcity a non-issue from an environmental perspective.”

Benchmarking and measuring water usage effectiveness are also challenges, Loosemore noted. The panel noted the industry has historically not had a baseline or benchmark. But recent annual sustainability reports, such as CyrusOne’s in 2020, have laid the groundwork and increased transparency, notably in PUE and WUE.

“We all know each other and we all work in sharing best practices around this, so transparency is super important for us,” Myers said. “Most of us in the industry now produce sustainability reports that provide line of sight to our metrics.  We also get lots of analyst reports that do a good job of competitive analysis.”

That said, we cannot look at PUE and WUE independently.

“There’s a trade-off there,” Myers said. “Oftentimes when you consume more water, you can lower PUE. But the opposite is also true. When you burn less water, oftentimes your PUE goes up, therefore you consume more electricity. There are a lot of considerations to this in terms of what’s the best way to measure what good looks like. But I go a back to directionally, that’s the key regardless of the metric you’re looking at.”

Loosemore then asked how the panelists and their industries drive change and more quickly solve water scarcity issues. The data center industry has led and will continue to lead in this space, Myers said.

“We’re on it, and we get it,” he said. “We’re signing up for voluntary zero-carbon commitments that are well ahead of any nation’s carbon commitments. We’re way ahead of the Paris Accord and any other accords you want to name that are out there. And it’s being driven by lots of stakeholders — there’s customers, stockholders, board members and employees.”

The data center industry is simply too important not to lead the way.

“Society needs innovation to solve for the climate crisis, and that innovation happens through using analytical and data tools, AI and machine learning,” Myers said. “That all happens in the data center. Data centers are becoming a new utility where we can’t function without them. Everything from 911 centers to air traffic control to robotic surgery — it all happens within the four walls of a data center.”

And the industry leads by better minimizing its footprint. Myers cited CyrusOne’s recent efforts to make its Chandler, Arizona, campus its first net positive water data center and the first such data center in the world. For that effort, the Environment + Energy Leader Awards program gave CyrusOne a Top Project of the Year Award.

Projects like this one, along with new technologies and innovation, all point to a brighter future. Loosemore asked the panel to look several years down the road and predict where the world will be in terms of progress in sustainability issues. Myers shared his excitement about Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM) fuel cells.

“There’s promising future development if we grow into this hydrogen economy we hear about, where hydrogen takes the place of fuel for a lot of things that emit carbon right now,” he said. “PEM fuel cells take in air and hydrogen, then produce power and water on the back end. Right now, I see it used mostly for backup generation. But how great is that? We’re actually going to contribute water to the watersheds potentially just by using cleaner technology. You get the best of both worlds — clean power and you generate water.” Once we can get renewable hydrogen, we really can have it all.

And that’s quite the win-win for sustainability.