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Water, Bytes & Dollars in Georgia

October 15, 2012

The 2012 summer drought came on fast and strong.  To date, Georgia has only gotten brief respite from two tropical storms (Beryl and Debby) – the long sought after wet “natural disasters” that were supposed to save us from the dry “natural disaster.”

The Governor’s office said they were mum on drought because “Georgia was better prepared for it this time,” according to this Macon Telegraph story.  The Los Angeles Times offered a different reason in a recent report, and identified drought and an inadequate water supply as bad publicity for business during a recession.

We all know that water and business has been, and remains linked.  First, in August the Governor’s Water Supply Program extended a loan for the proposed Bear Creek reservoir since the applicant claimed that Baxter International selected Newton County because of the anticipated reservoir (as opposed to a sweet-heart inducement agreement).

Second, if drought, water and economic development were not connected, why would the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce ask members to contribute up to $5,000 at a Gov. Nathan Deal fundraiser because of “his substantial commitment to creating new reservoirs,” according to the Saporta Report.  Finally, just a few weeks ago boosters in Macon cited the availability of water as a plus for folks looking to build new data centers in their city.

Bytes: And herein lies another connection between water, energy, and business in Georgia.  An explicit statement in the Forward Atlanta agenda puts a lot of stock not just in regional reservoirs, but also in digital, internet, and wireless businesses.  Georgia’s business boosters might want to take a second look at some of the leading corporations in our state.  While doing business requires water and energy to produce goods and supply services, many businesses are out in front when it comes to reductions in water and energy footprints.

Instant gratification: Earthquake and hurricane-free metro Atlanta has become a regional hub for massive data centers and server farms that make our internet and mobile searches, purchases, postings, bulging email boxes, streaming-content, navigation, and “cloud” storage possible.  There are “more than 50” health care, financial services, telecommunications and internet data centers in metro Atlanta (map), which sits at the intersection of two of the nation’s largest fiber optic routes.  As always, Georgia also offers cheap electricity.  And, as expected, Georgia has Sun Belt competition: WaterCrunch and GigaOM have written about some of the nation’s largest brand-name data centers (including Apple’s iCloud and solar array) and why they selected North Carolina.

Facilities like these – operated by Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, and third-party hosts (such as T5 Data Centers LLC, QTS, and peak 10) which hardly existed more than a decade ago – can consume tremendous quantities of electricity, diesel fuel, and water so we can use the internet whenever, where-ever, and for what-ever we desire.  The New York Times recently published a thought-provoking two-part series on national data centers and energy consumption.  The article sparked valid rebuttals from numerous folks in the tech infrastructure industry.  So what?

Heat sink: I tap into a data center when I do a Bing search, listen to Spotify, watch a You Tube video, or send an email.  And when data center servers work to complete our requests (or sit waiting to serve us or the next Twitter storm) – they get hot…really hot.  Engineers pump cold air or water into facilities (that is, for evaporative cooling, chillers, misting systems and heat exchangers) that absorb and carry heat away from equipment.  Data center designers are increasingly building server farms to work with site-specific environmental factors that reduce how much energy and water these systems use either directly when water is being used for cooling and indirectly if electricity is being used for cooling.

Tech Gets It:  Goggle – a company that invests in wind and solar energy generation – has also designed multiple global facilities to use energy and water efficiently.  For example, a converted a sixty-year old paper mill in Finland utilizes sea water – and not electric chillers – for cooling purposes.  There is another unique facility in our backyard.  Google’s metro Atlanta data center takes a portion of the Douglasville-Douglas County Water and Sewer Authority’s reuse water, uses the water to cool data center equipment (in evaporative cooling towers), and then retreats any remaining water before sending it to the Chattahoochee River.

Dollars: Water remains central to Georgia businesses, agriculture, energy generation, and daily suburban lifestyles.  The point is not just to have enough, but to use the supply as efficiently and as economically as possible.  A handful of corporations and local utilities have been systematically moving the “culture of conservation” needle.

  • TOTO’s 1,800 high efficiency fixtures – which replaced water-wasting toilets and urinals – save 56 million gallons of water annually (a 19 percent reduction) at one of the world’s busiest airports: Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport.
  • Anheuser-Busch InBev studied beers’ “water footprint” in their Cartersville brewery before instituting a conservation and efficiency program that can certainly benefit the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) River basin.
  • Coca Cola and Pepsi – which are both City of Atlanta water customers – have altered production cycles and incorporated a waterless ionic air cleansing technology for bottles and cans to eliminate water waste in the production of soda, sport drinks, juice, and bottled water.

The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper has highlighted some of these businesses as well as a number of forward thinking public utilities in their updated report – Filling the Gap: Conservation Successes and Missed Opportunities in Metro Atlanta.  These business and utility managers don’t hug trees or wear Birkenstocks; they watch bottom-lines while balancing water supplies, energy demands, water quality, and community needs.

Some of Georgia’s politicians and economic leaders balk at instituting aggressive water efficiency and solar energy initiatives that can ultimately make more room for the businesses Forward Atlanta’s strategists hope to slay.  Many of our politicians should stop pretending otherwise and stop focusing only on expensive water supply or dirty-energy options.

-Chris Manganiello

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