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How Data Centers Can Save California's Water Drought

July 02, 2017

How Data Centers Can Save California's Water Drought

The problem with talking about big data is that envisioning what it really is or how it can be applied is difficult. Sure, big data lets you analyze oceans of information, but how does it affect our daily lives? One clear example is how government agencies and others are mining big data to deal with large-scale problems, such as the current drought in California.

California is suffering the worst drought it has seen in 100 years. State reservoirs are at less than 50 percent capacity, and the lack of snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains means no runoff to replenish depleted water stores. Drought has become a statewide problem, but thanks to big data, there are new ways to address the problem and promote conservation and smarter water usage.

Using Big Data to Promote Water Conservation

In times of drought, the authorities call upon all citizens to conserve water. California Governor Jerry Brown and the state legislature have declared a state of emergency, including conservation measures prohibiting watering lawns, washing cars, and other directives. The goal is to reduce California water consumption by 25 percent, but how do you enforce those kinds of restrictions? One way is by using big data to track water consumption.

In Northern California, the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) is using big data to calculate water usage for residents. EBMUD has issued report cards to 10,000 of its 650,000 customers as part of a pilot program to cut down on water waste. Using smart meters and cloud computing resources, EBMUD was able to identify households that use more water than average. For example, the program has been used to alert two-person households that consume more than 127 gallons per day, which is the set amount.  By asking these customers to conserve, EBMUD has been able to reduce overall consumption by 5 percent. The goal is to reduce water consumption by 20 percent per capita.

Understanding the Needs of Agribusiness

California is also investing in big data analytics on a larger scale to identify larger sources of water waste.

The California Energy Commission has just pledged $2.3 million in funding to optimize energy and agriculture to eliminate water waste. Big data startup PowWow energy is working with the University of California (UC) at Santa Barbara and UC Davis to collect information on water usage for analysis. To date, most of this data has been isolated, but consolidating it for big data analysis has revealed patterns in agricultural and energy water usage that must be changed. For example, there is a clear relationship between power consumption and water usage when you assess how much energy it requires to pump water out of wells for irrigation.

Because commercial agriculture is one of the biggest water consumers in California, big data is being used to calculate how to optimize water usage. For example, big data can show which fields need to be watered, for how long, and at what time of day to minimize water loss and excess watering.

Access to Data is Essential

To apply big data solutions to address the water shortage problem, more data is needed for analysis. California agencies are demanding more information than ever from water utilities and services, but much of that data isn’t automated, so it must be gathered manually.

Every month, employees at 411 water providers throughout California manually enter the number of gallons produced into a secure Web portal operated by the State Water Resources Board. That data is then imported into a central spreadsheet to tabulate usage against prior months. The manual entry process works for now, but there is too much room for error, especially with a self-reporting data-gathering model.

Using more sensors such as smart water meters will eliminate manual data entry and improve reporting accuracy. It makes more sense to apply an Internet of Things (IoT) approach by using more sensors to gather real-time data about water use and distribution.

The Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency (MRWCPA) is already using data sensors along with data center and cloud computing resources to monitor water use in real time. By installing low-cost IoT devices, MRWCPA monitors pumping stations that process 20 million gallons of wastewater daily. The sensors allow the agency to optimize power usage at the pumping plants and optimize distribution of reclaimed water to farmers for agricultural use.

Real world problems such as the California drought are encouraging big data and data center innovation across the board. As one final example, in Monterey authorities are exploring the viability of installing a desalination plant. To protect wildlife in Monterey Bay, the plan is to pump seawater from deeper bay locations. To warm the water for desalination, the cold seawater will first be used to cool local data centers, thus bringing the water temperature up high enough for processing by the desalination plant. The result is an inexpensive means to cool data centers while producing fresh water. Now that’s cool.