Cutting Water Use – It Starts by Keeping Score

By John Schinter, Executive Director of Energy at AT&T

When I was hired in 2009, my task was – and still is – to improve the way AT&T manages energy use. The company understood that inefficient energy use was having an environmental impact and costing us money. In 2010 and 2011, we found energy savings to the tune of $86 million annually. 

During my time on the job, another resource has caught my attention – water. The fact is that water and energy are connected. As a society, we use a tremendous amount of water to generate electricity and huge amounts of electricity to clean and pump our water.  While the relationship between water use and electricity production varies by region, a look at some data from Texas is telling:  approximately 595,000 megaliters of water annually – enough water for over three million people for a year – are consumed to cool the state’s thermoelectric power plants. At the same time, each year Texas uses enough electricity to power water and wastewater systems for about 100,000 people. (Synthesis, The Energy-Water Nexus in Texas).

The relationship is true at the building level, too.  In fact, the EPA estimates that a full quarter of the daily water use of U.S. office buildings is used in cooling systems. We’ve found that cooling towers can use 50% or more of the water in our technical spaces like data centers because of the relatively small number of building tenants and all of the heat generated from servers and other equipment. Through a company-wide water audit, we found that the largest percentage of our 3.4 billion gallons of water per year is for cooling our buildings with cooling towers.

While water is cheap now, and an effective way of cooling today, McKinsey estimates that in just 20 years, demand for water will be 40 percent higher than it is currently, which means that the cost of it is likely to increase as well. Companies need to look at their water footprint today to find opportunities to save in the future, especially those with operations in drought-prone regions.

Source: WRI: http://aqueduct.wri.org/atlas

To address our cooling tower related energy and water use, we announced this past spring a project that we’re pursuing with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). The aim of the project is not only to find efficiency opportunities and tools for our own operations, but to develop best practices that can be applied to companies regardless of size and geographic location.  While we’re still plugging away at this project, we have seen real and significant signs of potential for water and energy reductions, in some cases between a 30% to 40% reduction in water use.  In an environment where we’re constantly challenged to build competitive business cases, these types of savings are compelling.

Water Score Card

Before companies can take steps to address their water use, however, they must first understand it. As part of our work with EDF, we’ve developed a toolkit for companies to get started.  The heart of the toolkit is a Water Score Card Guide, which shows how a company can develop its own Water Score Card, a tool I’ve used many times to engage my organization in creating visibility and accountability for efficiency programs.  The Score Card gives facilities a score for their water efficiency efforts by evaluating water usage and prioritizing the opportunities for water conservation.  As we’ve found, it’s also a great way to set the foundation for water program efforts.

The Guide is based on the lessons we learned in creating our Water Score Card. By deploying the Score Card at 125 sites, AT&T has been able to identify the most significant uses of water and identify improvement opportunities. Using a similar Score Card in our energy program helped us realize $86 million in energy savings by tracking 8,700 projects in 2010 and 2011.

We’ll keep working on our side, so stay tuned later this year to hear about our findings. In the meantime, get started! Visit the toolkit at edf.org/attwater and see what opportunities might lay ahead for your company in tackling your water use. You never know what you might find.