Intel's net positive water use only tells part of the story

Chipmaker's 'water into wine' magic is just as well given low levels of water near some fab sites

Intel is claiming a major victory in its sustainability goals with the announcement it has achieved "net positive water" at manufacturing facilities in the US, India, and Costa Rica.

Net positive water, as Intel defines it, means the company is returning more freshwater to local communities than it takes in. 

Intel Chief Sustainability Officer and VP of Global Public Affairs, Tom Brady, says the mega-corp plans to be net positive on water across all its operations by 2030. Brady said "strong partnerships with environmental nonprofits and local governments, and … our water stewardship investments" were what drove Intel over the line in the aforementioned countries. 

In total, Intel used approximately 16 billion gallons of water in 2021 worldwide, 13 billion gallons of which were returned to local communities and water sources via reclamation, with those conservation efforts amounting to 9.3 billion gallons of water returned last year, or 114 percent over the last two years. 

It takes an incredible amount of water to make the processors you use everyday.

Where water is being saved, and how

Intel doesn't describe in detail how its magic trick of turning water into more water works in America and other places, but it does reference its 2021 Corporate Responsibility Report, which breaks down water usage by locality [PDF, page 96]. Per the table, Intel's operations in the US return 106 percent of the water used, in Costa Rica it returned 103 percent, and in Bangalore, India, it restored 394 percent of the water it used last year.

It would appear Intel is doing so much water collection and treatment work that it ends up, directly or indirectly, and one way or another, putting more water back into the supply than it takes out, in some places.

Along with its own treatment methods, Intel has funded projects in Arizona to help farmers swap crops for less water-intensive growing, and in India it has funded water restoration projects to help restore Lakes Dyavasandra and Nanjapura. 

Additionally in Arizona, Intel has built the second of its Wastewater and Treatment Recovery (WATR) facilities, the first of which was located in Oregon. They explain that most industry water purification only performs pre-purification steps before shunting water to municipal treatment plants, who are forced to bear the load. 

"We've actually invested in a water reclaim system where we can treat that water to standards that we can directly reuse that water again at Intel," Brady said, adding that the system allows Intel to reuse millions of gallons of water a day. The Arizona WATR facility treated and reused approximately 1.1 billion gallons of water in 2021, Intel said. 

In its 2021 Restore Water Goal annual report, Intel lists a number of additional projects in the areas it operates, including replacing flood irrigation with drip systems and several wetland, lake and river restoration projects.

That's not all

Intel may be cutting down on its water usage, but that doesn't mean it's going green everywhere. In Ocotillo, Arizona, one of the locations included in Intel's CRR report, the company created around 15,000 tons of wastewater in the first three months of 2021 alone; 60 percent of which was considered hazardous. 

Intel also said it's net positive on water usage in 99 percent of its operations, but that average is heavily skewed by India's 394 percent reclamation. Other Intel facilities, such as its operations in Vietnam, only returned 41 percent of the water used; Israel and Malaysia had 63 and 61 percent of their water returned, respectively. 

An Intel spokesperson was not able to provide state-by-state net positive water statistics or to explain the geographical differences.

In addition, several of the locations in Intel's water usage table are flagged as experiencing high or extremely high levels of water stress – including both Arizona locations, where Intel has said it plans to build two chip fabs. The Verde and Salt rivers, the latter of which supplies water for Intel's Arizona operations, both feed into the Colorado; all three rivers have recorded record-low water levels in recent years. 

With Arizona only one of many western states facing an unprecedented drought, the question for Intel is why, even if it can return much of the water it uses, is the company choosing to expand in areas where access to water is likely to be a permanent problem?

"Intel considers many factors when selecting its manufacturing locations including talent availability, local business environment, supply chain availability and impact to the community/environment," an Intel spokesperson told The Register.

According to the spokesperson, Chandler, AZ, where an Intel campus is located, "has planned well for its water future," and has a long history of reclamation and conservation efforts. Arizona is also experiencing some of the greatest population growth in the US, and with only so much water to go around.

"We believe we have a responsibility to our communities, employees, and customers to reduce our impact on the environment and respect the human right to water," Intel told us. ®

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