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Borrowing Bay Water in Alameda

A waterfront server farm cooled by the bay would be environmentally less impactful than one cooled via air conditioning. Or would it?

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At first glance, the data center that Nautilus Data Technologies is proposing to construct at Old Alameda Point appears to check all the boxes for environmentally sensitive economic development.

The company hopes to invest up to $6 million in capital improvements to an old Naval building on West Oriskany Avenue, contributing about $1.5 million more to the city in one-time development impact fees. Its data center would become one of the top customers of Alameda's local power provider, Alameda Municipal Power, increasing the utility's revenues by up to $2.5 million a year, and thus reducing the likelihood of future rate increases for Alameda residents. Moreover, the company touts its technology as no less than "the world's most innovative water-cooled data center design, setting a new standard for energy efficiency, environmental sustainability, and global scalability."

Nautilus Data Technologies would offer its immense computing power to customers with large data-storage or data-processing needs. Such data farms consume large amounts of energy to operate thousands of interconnected computer servers. Consequently, they typically require enormous amounts of electricity to power air conditioning to cool the servers. But by using cool bay water to accomplish the same objective, the Nautilus facility would consume far less energy, thus reducing its carbon footprint by essentially "borrowing" the bay waters, in the memorable description of company CEO James Connaughton.

The company would import water through an intake pipe at Seaplane Lagoon near the U.S. Hornet and move it through an underground pipe to the server farm on West Oriskany Avenue. Nautilus proposes to continuously draw 10,000 gallons per minute from the bay through a 60-inch pipe constructed that would then circulate via smaller pipes in the company's building, cooling banks of servers before discharging the warmer water out through another pipe back into the Bay nearly equidistant between the U.S. Hornet and Encinal High School.

A consultant for the city said harbor seals that reside in the area and the endangered least tern would not be harmed by the waterfront server farm. Yet even as the Alameda City Council moved the project forward last month for possible approval of a 15-year lease at its June 18 meeting, some councilmembers expressed skepticism regarding the environmental aspects of the server farm. The council attached several conditions to the proposed lease, including hiring a third-party environmental monitor, requiring regular updates on the project, and retaining the ability to terminate the lease if adverse environmental impacts are later identified.

Councilman Jim Oddie said he does not believe the 86,000-square-foot server farm is as environmentally friendly as it claims to be. "It's a fragile ecosystem," Oddie said in an interview. "Fish spawn there, seals hunt in that area, and there is risk of a toxic algae bloom." The fact that the CEO of the Nautilus Data Technologies has a long history as an environmental conservative during the George W. Bush administration, only adds to the concerns of Oddie and environmentalists.

Connaughton calls the proposal environmentally friendly because no refrigerants or water treatment are involved. Cool water simply comes in from the bay, and slightly less cool water goes back into the bay. "The project is to produce a significant environmental benefit," he told the council on May 7. He asserted that the water returning to the bay from the server farm will ultimately be only one-tenth of a degree warmer than the bay's natural temperature.

However, the Northern Alameda County chapter of the Sierra Club takes issue with that claim. "At the projected volume of 10,000 gallons per minute, the heat being transferred to the Bay will maintain a permanently warmer zone of water next to the rock wall jetty at Alameda Point," Sierra Club chair and Berkeley councilwoman Sophie Hahn wrote in a letter to the Alameda council. "Movement of the tides will not permanently dissipate the relentless infusion of warmer water into the Bay. The San Francisco Bay and its delicate marine ecosystem is already under enough pressure. Adding another impact from warm water discharge is too risky, especially when there is no compelling reason for a data storage facility on the Bay shoreline."

Connaughton disputes that. If the scenario laid out by the Sierra Club and other were proven, he said, then Nautilus would not want to proceed. "That is not the objective of our project," he said.

John Rosenfield, a senior scientist for San Francisco Baykeeper, rejects Connaugton's notion that water would only be borrowed by the company.  "They're not returning the water in the exact condition," Rosenfield said. "If you borrow somebody's tools or car, you clean them up and give it back to them exactly the way you found them. This is modifying the water, turning it into hot water and sucking in more than water and returning it without the fish food and fish larvae. It's not a water quantity thing. It's a water quality thing."

And Rosenfield quarreled with Connaughton's statements minimizing the extent of the heated discharged water to one-tenth of a degree Fahrenheit. "This is designed to shift heat from the data center to the cooling body of water ... and that means that the bay receives the heat," he said. "There will be localized addition of heat. That's what it's designed to do. Aquatic organisms that I deal with and Baykeeper is concerned about, are very responsive to changes in temperature. They're cold-blooded, so temperature affects everything about them. ... These seemingly small changes are enough to kill fish eggs if the temperatures are at the right threshold."

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