Data centers continue to grow in size as we all do more online, which means more servers, more heat, and greater cooling requirements. Google’s data center in Berkeley County needed more water for cooling, and South Carolina just granted permission for the search giant to pump up to 549 million gallons of groundwater every year to cover that need.
As The State reports, not everyone is happy about the decision taken by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). Clay Duffie, manager of the Mount Pleasant Waterworks, opposed the permit Google was granted, explaining, “I don’t have a beef against Google itself, but I don’t think it is appropriate to use pristine groundwater for cooling computers, versus providing that water for people … We are obviously concerned about the long term, safe sustainable yield of that aquifer.”
The concern over groundwater use in South Carolina stems from the fact the state is expanding, meaning more water is required for people, there’s a number of huge vegetable farms in the area also placing heavy demand on water supply, and now Google has secured a vast quantity of the available water each year.
As far as the DHEC is concerned, “the withdrawals are justified under the state’s groundwater law,” but Google must adhere to the limit and conditions of the permit, which it secured until 2023. If it does not, then the license to use the water will be revoked.
Google released a fact sheet regarding groundwater in South Carolina when it first proposed the usage. It points out that the McQueen Branch/Middendorf aquifer where the water would be sourced from has 200 million gallons of “naturally reacharged groundwater” flowing through it each day. Any of the water not pumped out naturally flows into the Atlantic Ocean, Google explains.
In a statement following the decision to allow the groundwater use, Google said, “We strive to build sustainability into everything that we do, and our data centers are no different … We’ve been proud to call South Carolina home for more than ten years, and we’re proud of the investments that we’ve made here, including more than $2 billion in capital investment, supporting employment opportunities, municipal improvements, educational programs and local nonprofits.”
While it can be argued for and against pumping the water out of the acquifer in the first place, what’s just as, if not more important is what happens to the water after Google has used it for cooling. Google prefers to use water over chillers or air conditioning because it requires much less energy, it also uses sea water or waste water at data centers where it’s viable to do so, and sand tank filters to clean water after it is used, although the water isn’t suitable for drinking.
In the case of the Berkeley County data center, Google cycles the water repeatedly for cooling, which results in nearly all of it being lost in evaporation. None of it goes back in the ground and any remaining discharge is “miniscule” and flows into a sewer, according to the company.