Intel chips away at carbon footprint but skims over thirst for water, chemicals

Semiconductors are a dirty business

Intel has published proposals to tackle its environmental impact, largely focusing on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and moving to renewable energy, but gave less attention to water usage and the harsh chemicals involved in chipmaking.

The Santa Clara giant's Climate Transition Action Plan outlines a roadmap for how the company intends to achieve the goals it has already set itself, such as reaching net zero for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across global operations by 2040 and using entirely renewable electricity by 2030.

In a foreword to the plan, CEO Pat Gelsinger put his finger on the problem: "We are all participating in an evolving economy enabled by the magic of silicon. These tiny chips are essential to maintaining and enabling our modern lives," he writes.

Acknowledging the need to be more sustainable, Gelsinger claims Intel is "committed to delivering the silicon that powers our world while driving to the lowest possible environmental footprint."

Intel also claims in the report that it has already managed to avoid huge increases in Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions over the last decade, citing a 3x increase in manufacturing output since 2013 but largely constant emissions. The company has avoided 80 percent of the cumulative emissions it would have generated, if the report can be believed.

Scope 1 covers direct emissions from a company's operations, while Scope 2 covers indirect emissions, such as from the use of electricity.

On meeting its emissions targets, Intel said that in 2022 it achieved a 4 percent reduction in Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions, on the way to its goal of a 10 percent reduction from the 2019 baseline by 2030, and is now at 93 percent of its energy being renewable electricity.

The company said it intends to build new fabrication plants to meet US Green Building Council LEED standards by 2030. It also has a new goal of reaching net zero upstream Scope 3 GHG emissions, which come from its supply chain during the production of Intel's chips.

Intel said it is working to achieve these GHG reductions by installing electric facilities equipment at new offices and factories, and increasing the energy efficiency of process tools and facilities equipment.

It is also supporting collective action on industry-wide emissions reductions as a founding member of the Semiconductor Climate Consortium (SCC), and has set a target to increase the energy efficiency of its client and server processors by 10x by 2030 to reduce GHG emissions resulting from their use.

Laudable though this is, energy consumption and GHG emissions are only part of the environmental impact of the semiconductor industry. A Guardian article from 2021 claimed that a single Intel chip fabrication plant produced nearly 15,000 tons of waste, about 60 percent of it hazardous, in the first three months of that year, while also consuming 927 million gallons of fresh water, "enough to fill about 1,400 Olympic swimming pools."

Intel's plan only seems to address these in passing. It says the company aims to launch a cross-industry initiative to identify greener chemicals with lower global warming potential and to develop new abatement equipment, which is used to detoxify chemicals or gases used in manufacturing so they can be discharged safely.

When the report talks about water, this is only as a climate-related risk to the business, in that water stress could impact Intel's ability to manufacture products in future. Intel aims to mitigate this risk with its previously stated commitment to achieve "net positive water" for its global operations by 2030, which means returning more water than it takes from supplies. This means funding water projects elsewhere that will restore more freshwater than Intel consumes in its facilities, to address the water that Intel can't return because it is lost to evaporation, such as from cooling towers.

However, Intel's report does state that for 2023 its environmental metrics include achieving at least 95 percent renewable electricity globally, reducing Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 130,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent), conserving and restoring 12 billion gallons of water, and sending less than 5 percent of waste to landfill.

The Semiconductor Industry Association in the US lobbied Washington earlier this year to allow chipmakers to bypass environmental protection rules in order to speed up construction of new fabs to be built with CHIPS Act funding.

The organization was concerned that projects would be subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and this might lead to "significant delays in the disbursement of CHIPS funds" resulting in holdups in the construction and operation of new chipmaking infrastructure. ®

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