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Net Positive Water Efforts Win Accolade for CyrusOne, Chandler Campus

CyrusOne’s recent work to become net water positive has made a big splash.

The Environment + Energy Leader Awards program has given CyrusOne a Top Project of the Year Award, lauding our exemplary energy and environmental management work in the data center industry.

The Environment + Energy Leader Awards recognize excellence in products and services that provide companies with environmental and energy benefits and in projects implemented by companies that improved environmental or energy management and increased profitability. It honored CyrusOne for making the Chandler, Arizona, campus our first net positive water data center and the first such data center that we know of in the world.

The Chandler campus is in an extremely high water-stress region. So, we significantly cut the facility’s water intake by using our water-free cooling design, using only small amounts for humidification, facility maintenance, and domestic water. We also teamed with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and the Arizona Land and Water Trust to restore water flows to the region using Water Restoration Certificates, which are generated by helping local farmers switch to high-efficiency irrigation systems that allow more water to stay in natural waterways. Through these credits, we restored 40% more water than we used in 2019.

The project represents a win for our customers by reducing embodied water in their supply chains. It’s also a win for the local communities, who have more water supply in their regional watershed, and a win for the local habitat by protecting the San Pedro River, the last major free-flowing river in the American Southwest. Today, Chandler restores more water than it withdraws, making our local presence a net benefit to the community.

“CyrusOne’s approach demonstrates creative leadership in sustainability,” Environment + Energy Leader Awards judges said.

In October 2020, we published our 2020 Sustainability Report, highlighting progress toward our sustainability goals and emphasis on building data centers designed for a sustainable future. While the report details efforts and progress toward our ultimate goal of net-zero carbon operations by 2040, our strategy also includes sustainable initiatives aimed at water.

Water use in data centers can be a murky issue. Traditionally, water was used to provide necessary cooling services to data halls by using up excess heat to evaporate it – much like our bodies do when we sweat. However, this consumes large volumes of water (on the order of millions of gallons per month for modern data centers), making it inaccessible for other human or habitat needs. This means the decision to “burn water” instead of electricity is an important trade-off.

Our customers’ servers generate heat, so we provide cooling services. This is done at the expense of either electricity or water consumption. In the past, the production of electricity itself often consumed of large amounts of water – typically fossil fuels were burned to evaporate water into steam, which was used to generate electricity. Therefore, a data center cooled by electricity was still responsible for consuming a significant amount of embodied water when that electricity was generated. The assumption was that whether offsite at electrical plants or onsite at the data center, water consumption was about the same and “came out in the wash.”

In the past, this rationale was a reasonable assumption. However, as our electrical grid transitions to renewable power sources and leading companies make their own faster transitions, less water is consumed for that electrical generation. Electricity sources like solar and wind power are effectively water-free. Now that there is less embodied water in the electricity, the assumption that embodied water is roughly equal to the onsite consumption of water (for cooling) no longer holds.

Understanding that the choice between electricity and water for data center cooling makes a difference in the overall amount of water consumed, we now lead the way on how to consider data center impact on the world’s water. We are committed to build all of our new facilities without a reliance on water consumption-based cooling. Our target for water conservation is not to simply do less bad but to do more good and leave regions with high water stress better than if we weren’t there.

We learned many lessons in implementing our net positive water strategy in Chandler and will use that knowledge at other facilities to meet our 2040 net positive water target. Already we have applied these same techniques to our second net positive data center in Carrollton, Texas, another high water-stress region. Our target is to make all of our facilities in high water-stress regions into net positive water facilities. That way, our positive splash for water sustainability has a lasting ripple effect.