Investors want high-tech companies to save water | Don Brunell

Recently, Bloomberg reported that investors in massive data centers are making water availability a critical measurement in their decisions–especially in drought-ridden California.

Data centers, giant buildings packed with servers which power our virtual world, generate tremendous amounts of intolerable heat. Traditionally, the centers have large cooling systems which require millions of gallons of freshwater.

That’s a big problem because water is increasingly in short supply.

For the last five years, California has suffered through severe water shortages which forced Gov. Jerry Brown to issue a series of emergency restrictions. Those curtailments have been a challenge for the high tech industry because the preponderance of California’s data centers are located in Silicon Valley where the water supply flows out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

While the curtailments have targeted agriculture, traditional industries and municipal water users, Bloomberg reports investors insist that data center owners and computer chip fabricators substantially step up their efforts to reduce their water intake and output.

California has more than 800 of the world’s largest data centers. Those centers are often located in dry inland areas just as they are in Washington and Oregon.

For example, Microsoft, Dell and Yahoo built huge data centers in Quincy and Facebook located its server farm in Prineville, OR. Both cities are east of the Cascade Mountains where annual precipitation is a fraction of that of the west side.

Center operators have improvised, but much more innovation will be required in the years ahead.

For example, Facebook captures rainwater which saves an estimated 272,000 gallons of water each year. It is now working on plans to recycle “gray” or slightly contaminated water from its processing.

The semiconductor industry, which furnishes the chips for data center computers, is a big water consumer as well. According to Growing Blue, in 2007 Intel and Texas Instruments used a combined 11 billion gallons of water to produce silicon chips. They figured it took 2,000 gallons of water to make a single 300-millimeter silicon wafer—the base for the computer chip.

The focus on water conservation is not new. In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported computer chip manufacturers, which need large amounts of ultra-pure freshwater to thoroughly wash their wafers, needed to find creative ways to cut their freshwater consumption by up to 35%.

LA Times reported industry leaders even called upon elected officials to guarantee them water if they make those large investments. “This is a political issue,” said J. Rodgers, then president of Cypress Semiconductor, San Jose. “We need assurances our water supply will never be in jeopardy.”

However, today investors are challenging industry leaders to invent ways to find alternative water sources, conserve and find new ways to cleanse and recycle water.

As freshwater shortages become more acute, companies started looking for ways to use wastewater which is a by-product agricultural, industrial and municipal consumption.

For example, when the Geysers’ Geothermal project north and east of San Francisco found its steam pressure (and corresponding electrical generation) dropping, it worked with the City of Santa Rosa and Lake County to build a 40-mile pipeline to inject 20 million gallons of waste water daily into the Geysers’ deep underground reservoirs.

It has worked and the 14 power plants at The Geysers now generate enough electricity to power a city the size of San Francisco.

With our nation’s population expected to reach 392 million by 2050 (50% rise over 1990) sufficient freshwater supplies will become a more critical, if not an overriding issue, for all of us. Fortunately, we are blessed with a good base amount from which to work.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.