Hidden water, growing costs: My summer uncovering potential water savings at AT&T facilities

By: Ravindra Bhandari, 2012 EDF Climate Corps fellow at AT&T, MBA candidate at Babson College

I distinctly remember watching “An Inconvenient Truth” when the documentary was first released. It struck a deep emotional chord in me. I felt an obligation to do something but did not know where to begin.

That changed this summer. As an EDF Climate Corps fellow working with the water and energy sustainability team at AT&T, I finally found a way to translate my passion into action.

When I learned where I would be posted for the summer, I wondered what does AT&T — a telecommunications company — have to do with energy or water management? But then, during the first few days at AT&T’s headquarters in downtown Dallas, Tex., I learned that:

  • AT&T has a substantial real estate footprint made up of thousands of leased and owned facilities
  • These facilities consume a total of 3.4 billion gallons of water every year, equivalent to about 5,150 Olympic-size swimming pools
  • Just 125 of AT&T’s sites – including data centers and large office buildings – are responsible for more than 50 percent of AT&T’s total water use
  • Many of these facilities are located in water-stressed regions of the country

With such a significant impact, AT&T wants to reduce its energy and water footprint for the long-term sustainability of its operations. To tackle this problem, AT&T teamed up with Environmental Defense Fund to find innovative solutions for reducing the overall water consumption at cooling towers, which use a surprising amount of water to keep buildings cool. As an EDF Climate Corps fellow, I had a unique opportunity to engage in this work and help develop our approach for finding significant water, energy and cost savings.

Three-pronged approach

Our approach was to tackle the problem on three fronts:

  1. Technology Evaluation: Identify and track the performance of innovative water treatment technologies that dramatically reduce water use in cooling towers and analyze the possibilities of rolling them out to more sites.
  2. Operational Improvements: Use best practices to engage our facility managers and service providers to increase the number of times we can use our cooling tower water and reduce the amount of water discharged to the sewer.
  3. Maximize the opportunity for free air cooling: Identify sites where free air cooling – bringing cooler outside air in – can be used to reduce the need for mechanical cooling.  Since conventional cooling methods can be energy and water intensive, reducing the load on those systems can drive significant savings.

With our three-pronged approach in hand, we undertook a pilot program to evaluate our strategy and begin building a business case to scale the effort within AT&T.

Implementing the pilots was not always a smooth process, but the bumps we encountered along the way taught us valuable lessons for rolling this out more broadly.  Some of these lessons were:

  • One size does not fit all: Each building is very unique in its characteristics. While some sites are newly updated, others have antiquated infrastructure and Building Management Systems. Recognizing those differences helped us develop unique strategies to address these diverse facility conditions.
  • Competing Priorities: The property managers juggle busy workloads and serve many customers, so adding water and energy efficiency initiatives to their plates can be challenging. Support from company leadership as property managers take on new responsibilities is critical for success.
  • Lack of water treatment expertise: Water treatment for cooling towers can be confusing and complicated. The task is often performed by outside vendors. Increasing the knowledge and expertise of those charged with managing water cooling towers can unlock water savings.
  • One of the benefits of pilot projects is to work out some of these hiccups before the project is scaled. The lessons we’re learning will make AT&T smarter for the next phase of the project.

Sharing the lessons

By working together, AT&T and EDF have the power to spread the knowledge that saving water is not only the right thing to do, but can also lead to significant cost savings throughout the industry. This unique initiative can potentially impact the way companies think about their water usage and lead to billions of gallons of water saved annually.

As I return to school, the pilots will continue to run. I'm inspired and proud to know that AT&T and EDF are pursuing water savings before the well runs dry!

EDF Climate Corps places specially trained MBA and MPA students in companies, cities and universities to develop practical, actionable energy efficiency plans. Sign up to receive emails about EDF Climate Corps, including regular blog posts by our fellows. You can also visit our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter to get regular updates about this project.