Intel’s Investment in Water Stewardship

By Steve Harper, Global Director, Environment and Energy Policy, Intel

Steve Harper, Global Director, Environment and Energy Policy, Intel

On October 30, I had the honor to testify before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Water and Power Subcommittee at the invitation of Subcommittee Chairwoman, Martha McSally (R-AZ). The focus of the hearing was on the importance of water security to economic development in the arid Western U.S. A related spotlight was on the use of information technology (IT) as part of the solution to the water stress facing many Western watersheds. Representing Intel, an important stakeholder in conversations about both water stewardship and U.S. economic progress, I was keen to share our stewardship story.

Unlike many high-tech companies, Intel makes its own products. Because manufacturing semiconductors is water-intensive, Intel places great emphasis on the security of our water supplies everywhere we operate. A majority of Intel’s manufacturing occurs in the U.S. – in Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico – supporting a total of over 50,000 employees. Counting our own workforce and our supplier and partner network, Intel supports over 500,000 jobs throughout the U.S.

Semiconductor manufacturing is perhaps the world’s most technically complex industrial process. While each distinct Intel product has its own features, our latest CPU chip contains over 7 billion transistors. The manufacturing process that produces that level of complexity involves using significant quantities of both water and ultra-pure water (UPW).

Water also plays a large part in our relationship with our local communities. We’ve been investing in water conservation projects for nearly two decades, saving close to 64 billion gallons of water. Our onsite water management practices allow us to return approximately 80 percent of the water we use back to our communities. Despite these efforts, our water needs are growing along with company growth and manufacturing complexity. This led us to ask – what else should we be doing? The answer was to look at the bigger picture – beyond our own operations – and examine Intel’s role in the watersheds where we operate.

Barley Conversion in Camp Verde, Verde River Watershed, Arizona (to benefit Arizona’s water supply)

To address this gap, in 2017 we announced a new global commitment to restore 100 percent of the water we use. This means that for every gallon of freshwater we use, we will restore a gallon to our watersheds or communities, through existing water management practices in our operations as well as supporting local water restoration projects. We are engaging local community, nonprofit and conservation organizations to identify and fund projects that aim to address local water issues and support the well-being of communities and the environment in watersheds where our operations are located.

One of my favorite projects involves a partnership with The Nature Conservancy to help farmers near our Chandler, Arizona facilities switch to crops that require less water. The project provided startup funding for local farmers to switch from corn and alfalfa, which are water-intensive summer crops, to barley, which requires less water and grows during Arizona’s wetter winters. The project led others to development of a malt house near Chandler, establishing a local market for barley and reducing transaction costs for farmers.

In the aggregate, these projects will restore close to half a billion gallons of water to the environment each year, for 10 years or more. These results are being monitored and verified by an independent third party. Our project partners vary by site, but include The Nature Conservancy, National Forest Foundation, Trout Unlimited, and the Arizona Land and Water Trust.

In addition to telling the exciting story of our water projects, I briefly introduced the Subcommittee members to the role that Intel’s technology, and that of the broader IT industry, can play in helping address water supply and quality challenges. The Senate hearing, it turns out, followed by one week a Denver workshop co-sponsored by Intel and co-convened by Water Foundry and the Environmental Law Institute that identified specific examples of how Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, sensor networks, and other applications of IT can significantly improve water management, security and resiliency in the increasingly water-stressed Colorado River Basin and elsewhere.

Follow-up to this Subcommittee hearing is uncertain, but the Senators seemed very interested in learning more about the water solutions role of IT applications. While the water “footprint” of Intel factories is easy to identify, our products and our customers’ products have a solutions role – what we call our “handprint” – that is less well appreciated. Building on the work begun in Denver, we hope to build broader understanding of the IT water handprint. We also think that there is an important role for the Federal government to play – through basic research, procurement, and educational outreach, for example in working with our industry to grow that handprint.