City Receives Heat Over Water-Cooled System

At its Tuesday, June 18, meeting, City Council will consider approving Nautilus Data Technologies’ lease. The company hopes to operate a water-cooled data center at Building 530 at 120 West Oriskany Ave. on Alameda Point. The lease would also include use of two smaller buildings. 

In order to cool its data, Nautilus plans to use water from San Francisco Bay. If its lease and permits are approved, the company would build an “intake structure” beneath a wharf not far from USS Hornet. This 60x6-foot device would draw water from the Bay at a rate of 10,000 gallons a minute. The company told the Council that the intake employs “state-of-the-art, fish-friendly intake screens.” Once the water has cooled its data, Nautilus would discharge the water out into the Bay at the same rate. 

The Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Reserve (FAWR) and San Francisco Baykeeper have written letters to the City Council against the lease. Both organizations oppose the use of the system that Nautilus intends to use —once-through cooling. Baykeeper informed Council that once-through cooling is “an antiquated technological approach” and points out that use of this system “could harm the Bay in a variety of ways. 

On its website, Baykeeper shows that three power plants along the margins of San Francisco Bay used once-through cooling. The State Water Resources Control Board shut down these plants because, just as would happen with Nautilus, the process pulled large amounts of Bay water from and released the heated water back into the environment. This upset the sensitive temperature balance in the Bay ecosystem.

“We urge the Council not to approve the lease,” FAWR members wrote in its letter to the Council. The Friends point to serious potential negative environmental impacts of this data center on the bay and local wildlife. 

In its report to Council, staff stated that the Nautilus site is not in the buffer zone for the California least tern and this development will have no impact on the tern.

FAWR disagrees. “Our endangered least terns forage in the discharge area, and a critical Brown Pelican roost and our Harbor Seal float are nearby,” the Friends state. The organization points out that, “Any rise in (water) temperature could put one or all of the fish species at risk during stages of their development or cause them to swim in the water at levels unavailable to our birds. This project proposes changing water temperatures and creating turbulence in ways that have been shown to impact fish and other wildlife.” 

According to Baykeeper, the transfer of heat energy from the data center, along the route of the cooling system and into San Francisco Bay “can cause direct mortality to sensitive phases — like eggs, or larvae — of fish or their invertebrate prey.” In addition Baykeeper states that dispersal of waste heat into waters surrounding the system may also facilitate the growth and distribution of undesirable organisms. 

“The delicate marine ecosystem of the Bay is already under pressure,” FAWR states. “Our Alameda Point nature reserve and its wildlife are a unique and fragile resource in our intensely urbanized region. This project poses risks for each of these resources. Alameda cannot take the risk of the unknown consequences arising from this project.” 

Should the Council approve the lease, the city will require Nautilus to obtain permits and certifications from a number of regional and state regulatory agencies. Approval to move forward will require four votes. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 2263 Santa Clara Ave.