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Data center water use estimates vary wildly

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Public Service Company of New Mexico’s plans to power a proposed Los Lunas Facebook center gets its first public airing at a hearing before the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission Tuesday.

Meanwhile, concerns are being raised in Utah, where Facebook is considering a competing site, about how much water the data center would use.

Facebook is considering both Los Lunas, N.M, and West Jordan, Utah for the site of a new $250 million data center.

Last week, two Utah news outlets obtained a letter from Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams that said the proposed West Jordan data center—referred to by officials there as “Project Discus”—would require 5.3 million gallons of water per day.

But Los Lunas Mayor Charles Griego said in an email to the Journal that the New Mexico data center would require “substantially less” than what had been estimated in Utah. He said he was currently working on the water use agreement and was not at liberty to give more specifics until discussions were complete.

Facebook declined to comment for this story, but information from the company’s sustainability website paints a picture of water consumption at Facebook’s data centers that differs dramatically from the number quoted by McAdams.

According to the company’s website, Facebook’s data center in Prineville, Oregon, which has two data center buildings, used 9 million gallons of water per building per year in 2015 — a rate of about 25,000 gallons per day for each building.

The first phase of the Los Lunas project includes one data center building, with as many as five more in the future, according to PRC filings. If the new data center uses water at a rate similar to the Prineville center, the data center would use water at a rate of between 25,000 and 150,000 gallons a day, depending on the phase of the project.

Facebook says it consumes approximately 221 million gallons of water a year, 70 percent of which—about 115 million gallons annually—is used by the company’s data centers. A water usage rate of 5.3 million gallons a day would add nearly 2 billion gallons to the company’s total annual water consumption.

McAdams’ spokesperson Alyson Heyrend said the Utah mayor’s water usage number was based on conversations between the city of West Jordan and the local water authority that were then reported to the mayor’s office.

Large data centers have historically required massive amounts of water to keep computers and storage devices at a constant temperature. The initial design plans for the 200-acre National Security Agency data center in Bluffdale, Utah—about 10 miles away from West Jordan—estimated the site would use 1.7 million gallons of water per day, though it has used less since it opened in 2014.

Facebook’s website says the company has designed its data centers to use about half the water a typical data center uses.

“Most data centers use a significant amount of water as part of their cooling systems,” reads the website. “For the server halls of the data centers we own, we found a better way: using fresh air pulled in from outside and, when needed, efficient water evaporation technology. Any excess warm air gets recycled or sent back outside.”

Public discourse in New Mexico so far has focused less on water usage and more on the economic benefits of the data center as well as how it will be supplied with electricity. PNM’s application includes, among other things, a mechanism for the utility to recoup the costs of supplying renewable energy to the data center, as well as construction of  a new solar facility.

Utah’s public service commission is expected to complete their review of a similar proposal by Aug. 31. PNM requested that the PRC expedite their review process in order to make New Mexico’s bid for the project more competitive.

New Mexico lawmakers, the business community, and environmental advocates have expressed nearly unilateral support for the data center. In July, the state’s congressional delegation sent a letter expressing support for the project to PRC chairwoman Valerie Espinoza. On Monday, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas sent a press release indicating his support. All six of the intervening parties in the PNM case—Western Resource Advocates, New Energy Economy, New Mexico Industrial Energy Consumers, the Renewable Energy Industries Association of New Mexico, the Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy, and the city of Albuquerque—have also indicated they support the data center.