Metadata center in Talavera will consume more than 600 million liters of drinking water in an area at risk of drought | technology

Spain is not going through its best moment in terms of water resources. Swamp reserves are minimal. The threat of drought hangs over many governorates and is becoming a reality in others. In this context, Junta de Castilla-La Mancha has given the go-ahead for the development of a large data center in Talavera de la Reina, Toledo. It will be the fourth such opening in Europe by tech giant Meta and one of its goals is to support meta. The complex, which will cover 180 hectares and will have a planned installed electric capacity of 248 megawatts, will consume about 200 million liters of drinking water annually, according to data extracted from the project’s technical report. The amount reaches 665 million liters of clean water per year if we also take into account the amount that will be allocated to the rest of the associated facilities (offices, services, irrigation, electrical station, etc.).

This is a significant number in an area, the Tagus Basin, that is subject to water stress. “The Alberche River, which feeds the region, is part of a water deficit system that is already under severe stress. The incorporation of new consumptions raises doubts about the real ability to sustain them,” assesses Ecologistas en Acción. The Tagus Hydrographic Union is on alert on the scarcity index monitoring map prepared by the Ministry of Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge. The junta of Castilla-La Mancha activated an aid of 50 million euros two weeks ago for farmers affected by drought. The Minister of Agriculture, Francisco Martínez Arroyo, ruled out “general restrictions” on water consumption, though he did not close the door on specific measures when necessary.

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Data centers are an essential part of large technology companies. The advancement of digitization and the advent of artificial intelligence is increasing the demand for this type of infrastructure. These are large warehouses filled with computers running day and night that store data and perform calculations remotely so that applications on a mobile or stationary network can run. The activity of this type of computer farm generates so much heat that large cooling systems are needed.

This is where the water comes in. data centers for bigtech They average about 25 million liters per year, according to data from specialist consulting firm Dgtl Infra. Akbar, called hypercenters of data up to 600 million. The Talavera Complex exceeds this last figure except by counting drinking water. Wastewater consumption (that which has not been treated), according to documents sent to the council, can reach a peak flow of 120 liters per second in the data center and 33 liters per second in the rest of the complex. If this rate was maintained throughout the year, we would be talking about 4,800 million liters. The company preferred not to confirm to this newspaper the factory’s consumption levels, which appear in the official documents of the project.

The land on which the Meta de Talavera data center will be located includes part of the Zarzaleja stream.  Pictured is a recreation of one of the paths that will pass through the green spaces included in the project.
The land on which the Meta de Talavera data center will be located includes part of the Zarzaleja stream. Pictured is a recreation of one of the paths that will pass through the green spaces included in the project.

The metadata center campus plan was presented in March with enthusiasm by the Chairman of the Board, Emiliano García-Page. “Today is the victory day for Talavera. This initiative will mean a before and after for the city, and this is just the beginning. It will change the social and economic metabolism of the autonomous community,” he affirmed on March 21. The infrastructure will mean an injection of around 1,000 million euros into the region, it was announced, and will employ 250 highly qualified workers. “While no investment decision will be made until all permitting and planning processes are complete, we are delighted to have such great support and reception,” says a Meta spokesperson. The one in Talavera will be added to the company’s existing data centers in Luleå (Sweden), Clonee (Ireland) and Odense (Denmark).

The Board has done everything in its power to expedite the procedures associated with a project of this magnitude. In March, it was granted Project of Single Interest (PSI) status, shortening the time frame and allowing public lands to be set aside for private activities. The plan is currently being submitted to EIAs established by junta regulations, Toledo confirmed. During these assessment procedures, the competent bodies inform and assess the feasibility of the project in terms of its water needs and availability of the resource. Sources from the Board of Directors made it clear that the Tagus Hydrographic Union is the body that should report on the adequacy of the resource.

On the other hand, the union points out that “the city council of Talavera, which has had the concession of water since 1941, is responsible for the supply of the municipality”. The body that oversees the water reserves of the Tagus has already prepared two reports on the project: in 2019 and 2022, when the project was submitted and when it was raised to PSI category, respectively. He is currently working on a third “potential environmental impact” report for the complex.

Project acceleration

“No one has the slightest doubt that the reports will be favorable. PSI has been launched to accelerate projects that already have a positive political decision, ”emphasized the spokesperson for Ecologistas en Acción. It will be the Tagus Hydrological Union, which depends on the Government of Spain, that will finally confirm or not confirm the availability of the required resources for the data center.

In terms of projected energy consumption (248 megawatts per year), if the development aspires to be self-sustainable, as the documents suggest, 400 hectares of solar panels would be needed, according to the NGO Environmental Defense NGO’s calculations. The project covers 180 hectares. The population of Talavera de la Reina is 83,009 according to the National Institute of Statistics (2018), and the daily per capita consumption is 131 liters. The data center will spend approximately 4,181 lives every day.

Located near the Torrehierro industrial area, the complex will contain 49 hectares of green space (nearly half of the reserved area), which includes the Zarzaleja riverbed running through the land. Some associations have warned that the project may affect endangered species living in the area, such as the imperial vulture or the griffon vulture. The polygon where the facilities will be located is located just 1 km from the Sierra de San Vicente, Valles del Tiétar, the Alberche Special Conservation Area and the Valle del Tiétar Special Conservation Area for Birds. The works are expected to start at the end of 2023 and will last between six and seven years. The center should be operational in 2030.

“In the Netherlands, a national scandal broke out around a Microsoft aggregator that claimed to consume 20 million liters per year and was later discovered to spend 80 million liters. Meta data center consumption would be much higher than that,” says Anna Valdivia, a professor at the Oxford Internet Institute. Disclosure of the case he refers to in 2021, when the country was in a drought.The Dutch authorities imposed a nine-month ban on the development of “hypercenters data” until more detailed environmental feasibility studies are completed.

As this researcher was able to verify, there is almost complete opacity regarding resource consumption in data centers. “There is little information available in this regard,” he asserts. Both the European Union and the United States are working on regulations that require the publication of this data, as well as on tightening the sustainability requirements that must be met.

Scheme of the data center that Meta will build in Talavera de la Reina.
Scheme of the data center that Meta will build in Talavera de la Reina.

Natural resources versus digitization

Not all data centers are the same. The industry is struggling to find ways to reduce its environmental impact. “The infrastructures that operate in our country are much more efficient and sustainable than in northern Europe or the United States,” says Manuel. “The vast majority of data centers in Spain do not consume water: almost all of them use an air-cooled system.” , CEO of Spain DC, employer of co-location data centers (those that house and process third party information). The bet is on the use of closed water circuits, which cool the systems and recover the evaporated liquid by condensation for further use.

This is confirmed by those responsible for the most modern facilities in the country, who add that the water used is groundwater and is not suitable for drinking, and is treated in an osmosis plant to increase its useful life. They only have to replace small amounts of the evaporated liquid. An average data center with 10 megawatts of power, 24 times smaller than what Meta predicted in Talavera, would need about 2.2 million liters of water over its useful life, says Jimenez: that’s used to fill the tank. These consumption levels are in striking contrast to those shown in the technical documentation for the factory that the company that Mark Zuckerberg directed plans to develop.

It is clear from Aurora Gómez why the future Meta data center was chosen to be located in Talavera de la Reina. They have gone to search for an uninhabited area with a high unemployment rate. The promise of employment and investment in these kinds of areas, he says, reduces the usual resistance to projects with high environmental costs. As for the accompanying jobs, the highest quality requires high qualifications that are difficult to cover with national manpower. An expert digital behavioral psychologist and digital rights activist, Gomez is one of the promoters of Tu Nube Seca Mi Río, an initiative aimed at raising awareness about the environmental and social impact of data centers.

This same procedure has been seen in other regions of the world. In the United States, data centers have exacerbated drought problems in Utah, Arizona, and Oregon. “There are three states that are in desert and sparsely populated areas,” says Gomez. One of the largest known companies does not belong to a multinational technology company, but to the National Security Agency. It is located in Camp Williams, Utah, near Salt Lake, Utah, and has an estimated consumption of 64 million liters per day. Since 2014, Washington has not disclosed whether or not this number is correct, citing national security reasons.

In other countries, such as Ireland or Singapore, bans similar to those in the Netherlands have been signed to think about what kind of data centers they want to develop, what characteristics they should have and what is the best location for them. Some experts suggest that if these types of facilities are critical infrastructure, such as power plants or water treatment plants, they should be public or semi-public.

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