Microsoft in turmoil after underestimating the water consumption of one of its Dutch data centers

In the midst of a drought in the Netherlands, Microsoft is at the heart of a new controversy targeting one of its datacenters, whose water consumption had been largely underestimated.

In the Netherlands, a new controversy is shaking data centers, and more specifically a data center operated by Microsoft north of Amsterdam, whose drinking water consumption had been largely underestimated. When the project was validated by the Municipality of Hollands Kroon, where this datacenter is located, Microsoft had forecast an annual water consumption ranging from 12 to 20,000 m³.

However, in fact, this infrastructure consumed 84,000 m³ of water in 2021, while an independent expert hired by Microsoft re-estimated the center’s annual water consumption at around 100,000 m³. This figure was taken up by Microsoft and the Municipality of Hollands Kroon during an update of their public data.

This is five to eight times more than the initial data suggested and, inevitably, when the Netherlands declared itself in water shortage on August 2, 2022, these revelations outraged part of the public opinion in which requires daily effort in times of severe drought.

How could Microsoft have underestimated the water consumption of this data center to such an extent, knowing that the American firm has a long experience in the exploitation of this type of site? Microsoft explains that the data center’s hydraulic cooling circuit is only opened when outside temperatures exceed 25°C. However, for its calculations, the company had used weather data from the year preceding its establishment, during which Hollands Kroon had experienced only six summer days at over 25°C. In 2021, there were 22. And this year, the results should be even more unfavorable. Hence the big difference between estimates and reality.

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Microsoft may well recall having committed to reducing the water consumption of its European cloud infrastructures by 95% by 2024, for a citizen action group in the municipality, this does not pass. “It’s hard to hear because these are times when residents are called upon to do everything they can to save their drinking water consumption”they say before adding: “These periods of drought are bound to repeat themselves, we need a better distribution of the water available in times of shortages.”

There are of course ways to limit the water consumption of a data center. Use closed or semi-closed circuits, use water cooling systems (themselves consumers of electricity, etc.) to reinject it into the circuit, or even think about reusing the heated water at the local level to power industrial or heating systems, for example. But this is obviously not the case here, where a “low consumption” infrastructure releasing less heat has been favored in order to use air cooling.

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The environmental bill of data centers becomes a political issue

Quite clearly, this kind of revelation gives arguments to a growing part of citizens opposed to the establishment of huge data centers on Dutch farmland, despite the opportunities wielded for the communities concerned in terms of fallout. finances, jobs, education or local infrastructure.

If Google has already set up two sites in the country which has seen the growth of data centers in recent years (there are now more than 200), Meta had to resolve to abandon its project for a huge data center in Zeewolde. Facebook’s parent company planned to build the largest center in the Netherlands there, with an area equivalent to 1,300 Olympic swimming pools. The nibbling of 166 ha of good-yielding agricultural land did not pass to the citizens, especially since the electricity consumption of the site was estimated at 1,380 GWh, more than double the consumption of the 22,000 inhabitants of the commune. .

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It should be noted that Microsoft was one of the first American giants to seize, in 2015, opportunities to set up its Hyperscale datacenter, attracted by the government’s policy for these infrastructures, while Amsterdam is an Internet exchange point. strategy in Europe. But already in 2017, in Wieringermeer, one of its data centers fueled an environmental debate around renewable energies since it engulfed almost all the production of a park of 82 wind turbines located nearby.

As Europe faces a major energy crisis that promises to intensify this winter, there is little doubt that politicians will come under increasing citizen pressure to balance the required efforts. Will the digital giants, big energy consumers, be able to escape it? Some defenders of the sector are already criticizing a certain ambient hypocrisy, pointing to uses that have become common and estimating that in the Netherlands, for example, data centers consume less than 0.5% of the energy consumed. Defenders of the environment, they believe that it is high time to enter a phase of energy sobriety, including in digital, to try to limit global warming as much as possible and mitigate its effects as much as possible.

It will therefore be up to the political class to arbitrate, knowing that the European energy ministers of Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg and the Netherlands began on 27 June to discuss the need to put in place new energy standards and new rules for operating data centers in the Union. “If we don’t act on data centers, we lose part of the potential for exiting gas and contributing to the energy transition”, believes Luxembourger Claude Turmes, project leader, member of the Green Party. In addition to electricity consumption, water consumption will undoubtedly also be at the center of the discussions.

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