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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."

Like the Sierra Club, Baykeeper sent a letter to the city of Alameda cautioning it about the proposed data center. Aside from the environment impacts it believes might follow construction of the data center and its cooling system, Baykeeper worried that Nautilus Data Technologies' use of bay water could set a precedent for others to mimic elsewhere.

Nautilus employs a similar server farm in Stockton that uses Sacramento River Delta water to cool servers that rest on a river barge. The Stockton project, however, had fewer environmental concerns since the rapid movement of river water more quickly dissipates heat increases from the server farm. By contrast, the movement of water near Alameda Point is languid.

Baykeeper's Rosenfield also is troubled by the locations at which water would flow into and out of the company's cooling system, one of which is near a harbor seal pullout. The company says it would mitigate the aquatic impact of the swift inflows with its patent-pending screening technology. But Rosenfield said even the best screening technology is not fool-proof, and creating a gathering point for fish is likely to have unintended consequences.

"When the water comes in, fish and the things fish eat — fish eggs, fish larvae, baby fish — are going to get entrained," Rosenfield said. "And they will say, I'm sure, 'We have the best available screening technology,' but they can't be effective against things that don't swim."

In addition, the mouth of any underwater pipe is typically a place where predators will learn to congregate. "It's a structure," he said. "It allows them to hide and pick off fish when they are impinged on that screen."

Meanwhile, he added, important questions need to be asked about the current coming from the outflow. "What is it headed toward? What kind of current is it creating? Is it right next to an eelgrass bed or a herring-spawning ground or a place where dungeness crab hang out? We don't know. We haven't looked, but that's why we're asking people to look to it."

Even if aquatic life is not currently found at the locations of the inflow and outflow, Rosenfield said the state of the bay is not static. "The bay is a changing environment. Do we know they won't be there in the future? We have sea-level rise. We have climate-change. Maybe that becomes a habitat or unusable."

Rosenfield said the cooling technology being proposed is passe and already banned by the state for use by power plants. "I was shocked when I heard about it," he said. "That's a 1950s solution to cooling of a hot place. It's antiquated and on it's way out in most applications because it is not as simple as borrowing the water, it's modifying the water quality in a significant way and we can do a lot better." A more elegant solution, he argued, would be to convert the waste heat to electricity, such as some European countries have done.

Nautilus will have to navigate nearly a dozen local and state regulatory bodies before it can open for business. It's a task that Rosenfield would be surprised that they can accomplish. "It would be odd for the state to allow a different kind of facility to use the same old technology." However, Connaughton said the most compelling reason for the city to approve a conditional lease for the property is to allow the company to begin the process for local and state environmental approval of the project.

Yet Oddie and other environmentalists who are aware of Connaughton's service in the Bush administration find it difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt. As a key member of the President George W. Bush's administration, Connaugton spearheaded repeated attempts to undermine the environmental movement, implementing lax regulations written by the fossil fuel industry, and fostering the type of climate-change denial rhetoric that is now ubiquitous among conservatives.

As head of the White House Council of Environmental Quality, Connaughton gained great power over environmental and energy policy after Vice President Dick Cheney essentially folded the office into his own orbit. Connaugton steered efforts forcing the EPA to understate the air quality around the World Trade Center after 9/11 and asserted it was safe to breathe. He led the office during an era when the U.S. pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, a 1992 international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

By the end of Connaugton's eight years in the Bush administration, his office's stance against recognizing the growing effects of climate change remained constant. In several cases, at the behest of the administration, Connaughton questioned whether there was sufficient data for scientists to establish a threshold for when greenhouse gas levels would begin to critically affect the environment. Connaughton and his council also came under fire after the office was found to have selectively edited and, in some cases, censored the severity of climate change in government reports.

Prior to his work in the White House, Connaughton was a corporate environmental attorney who represented Superfund polluters, such as General Electric, ARCO, and Alcoa, among others. He also has experience with environmental regulatory agencies in California.

"This guy really personifies the Bush era, with its fetid mix of mendacity, ideology, and incompetence," the environmental website Grist wrote following a widely-panned appearance by Connaughton before a senate committee in 2007. "No doubt he'll be back in a cushy lobbying job before Bush's boxes are even cleared out of the White House."

Through it all, Connaughton called himself an environmentalist. "Climate change is one of the most important areas of government with complex opinions and I was the uber mediator," he said in an interview. He also expressed pride in his 35-year record on the issue and believes the data center "should be evaluated on its merits," and not on his politics.

Connaughton vows to comply with any environmental benchmarks the city council applies to the project in order to prove "we won't create the harm that we won't create." He added: "My entire life has been as a conservationist and an environmentalist and it's an issue that doesn't know any party stripe."

But Oddie is not so sure. "He believes he's an environmentalist, but our definitions might be different. ... I don't fault him for his beliefs, but it makes me question whether we can trust someone who served for, until now, the least environmentally friendly president in history. There seems to be a lot of 'Trust me. Trust me' coming from him and given his prior positions, I have concerns."

The Alameda City Council could decide to approve the lease with Nautilus Data Technologies on Tuesday night with the suggested amendments intended as safeguards for its environmental concerns. Nautilus Data Technologies would still require numerous regulatory approvals before it begins drawing water from the bay. Or, the council could also apply more conditions before approving the lease, including directing Nautilus Data Technologies to relocate the discharge pipe, according to city staff. To be approved, the lease agreement will need support of four of the city's five councilmembers.

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