How AI is Taking Water From the Desert

Microsoft built two datacenters west of Phoenix, with plans for seven more (serving, among other companies, OpenAI). “Microsoft has been adding data centers at a stupendous rate, spending more than $10 billion on cloud-computing capacity in every quarter of late,” writes the Atlantic. “One semiconductor analyst called this “the largest infrastructure buildout that humanity has ever seen.”

But is this part of a concerning trend?
Microsoft plans to absorb its excess heat with a steady flow of air and, as needed, evaporated drinking water. Use of the latter is projected to reach more than 50 million gallons every year. That might be a burden in the best of times. As of 2023, it seemed absurd. Phoenix had just endured its hottest summer ever, with 55 days of temperatures above 110 degrees. The weather strained electrical grids and compounded the effects of the worst drought the region has faced in more than a millennium. The Colorado River, which provides drinking water and hydropower throughout the region, has been dwindling. Farmers have already had to fallow fields, and a community on the eastern outskirts of Phoenix went without tap water for most of the year… [T]here were dozens of other facilities I could visit in the area, including those run by Apple, Amazon, Meta, and, soon, Google. Not too far from California, and with plenty of cheap land, Greater Phoenix is among the fastest-growing hubs in the U.S. for data centers….

Microsoft, the biggest tech firm on the planet, has made ambitious plans to tackle climate change. In 2020, it pledged to be carbon-negative (removing more carbon than it emits each year) and water-positive (replenishing more clean water than it consumes) by the end of the decade. But the company also made an all-encompassing commitment to OpenAI, the most important maker of large-scale AI models. In so doing, it helped kick off a global race to build and deploy one of the world’s most resource-intensive digital technologies. Microsoft operates more than 300 data centers around the world, and in 2021 declared itself “on pace to build between 50 and 100 new datacenters each year for the foreseeable future….”

Researchers at UC Riverside estimated last year… that global AI demand could cause data centers to suck up 1.1 trillion to 1.7 trillion gallons of freshwater by 2027. A separate study from a university in the Netherlands, this one peer-reviewed, found that AI servers’ electricity demand could grow, over the same period, to be on the order of 100 terawatt hours per year, about as much as the entire annual consumption of Argentina or Sweden… [T]ensions over data centers’ water use are cropping up not just in Arizona but also in Oregon, Uruguay, and England, among other places in the world.

The article points out that Microsoft “is transitioning some data centers, including those in Arizona, to designs that use less or no water, cooling themselves instead with giant fans.” And an analysis (commissioned by Microsoft) on the impact of one building said it would use about 56 million gallons of drinking water each year, equivalent to the amount used by 670 families, according to the article. “In other words, a campus of servers pumping out ChatGPT replies from the Arizona desert is not about to make anyone go thirsty.”

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