The environmental footprint of data centers in the United States

Publication Type

Journal Article

Date Published

05/2021

Abstract

Much of the world's data are stored, managed, and distributed by data centers. Data centers require a tremendous amount of energy to operate, accounting for around 1.8% of electricity use in the United States. Large amounts of water are also required to operate data centers, both directly for liquid cooling and indirectly to produce electricity. For the first time, we calculate spatially-detailed carbon and water footprints of data centers operating within the United States, which is home to around one-quarter of all data center servers globally. Our bottom-up approach reveals one-fifth of data center servers direct water footprint comes from moderately to highly water stressed watersheds, while nearly half of servers are fully or partially powered by power plants located within water stressed regions. Approximately 0.5% of total US greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to data centers. We investigate tradeoffs and synergies between data center's water and energy utilization by strategically locating data centers in areas of the country that will minimize one or more environmental footprints. Our study quantifies the environmental implications behind our data creation and storage and shows a path to decrease the environmental footprint of our increasing digital footprint.

Journal

Environmental Research Letters

Volume

16

Year of Publication

2021
Research Areas