In Isère, the electronics industry drinks all the water

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Grenoble, report

One morning in December, passers-by in downtown Grenoble discovered, a little intrigued, a pile of bottles on the sidewalk. 336 bottles of one liter each, deposited in front of Eaux de Grenoble Alpes, the company in charge of water service in the agglomeration. These 336 liters represent the water consumption per second – estimated for 2023-2024 – of the STMicroelectronics and Soitec factories. Installed in the Grésivaudan valley near the metropolis, they produce semiconductors, which are found in most electronic objects.

It was the citizen collective Stop micro who piled up the bottles, and called for a demonstration around a rallying cry: Water, not fleas ! » Our collective relays the anger of those who see companies polluting and plundering common resources for the creation of artificial needs, and in our opinion harmful, which seem to us completely disconnected from the climate emergency in which we are. »explains a representative of Stop micro to Reporterre. Smart cards can’t be eaten ! »underlines for his part Corentin [*]a market gardener who came to demonstrate.

The Stop micro collective denounces the gigantic water needs of this flagship industry of the electronics sector.

Locally, the announcement of the Franco-Italian giant and its promised 1,000 jobs were also applauded. Only Senator Guillaume Gontard (Europe Écologie-Les Verts) and MP Jérémie Iordanoff (Nupes) called, in a press release, for the vigilance on the ecological and societal consequences linked to the development of these activities ». Because the problem is there: the semiconductor industry, in addition to being energy-intensive, is very water-intensive. Each plate requires thousands of liters of ultrapure water to be cleaned, rinsed and then etched.

An increase of 55 % of water withdrawals in ten years

Grenoble benefits from abundant, accessible and quality water, and therefore inexpensive, which has attracted many industries. But as elsewhere, the capital of the Alps suffers from periods of drought. In 2022, the groundwater level of Grenoble remained low » throughout the summer and until November, according to data from the Bureau of Geological and Mining Research (BRGM). In mid-August, the prefect of Isère placed the department at the maximum level of drought vigilance… while excluding restrictions on companies with specific drought measures in times of “crisis” » and or having already reduced their economic levy as much as possible ».

Knowing that, as explained by Aimeric Mougeot, elected CGT STMicroelectronics Crolles, at Reporterre, we consume more water in summer than in winter, because there is more need for cooling. The factory ran at full capacity this summer ». In its environmental report, ST claims to have reduced the volume of water used per tablet (1,700 liters of water in 2021 compared to 2,000 liters in 2020). According to Éric Gerondeau, director of the Crolles site, several tens of millions of euros » are invested for build a second treatment plant and a recycling unit » some water. In 2021, STMicroelectronics recycled 28 % of water withdrawn, and Soitec, in Bernin, 16 %.

The water resources of the Grenoble region have attracted many industries.

However, in Crolles, the water consumption of ST has never been so high: 4.23 million m3 collected in 2021. Ten years earlier, its consumption was What » 2.7 million m3… an increase of 55 %. Its neighbor Soitec is also one of the major consumers in the department, with 1.1 million m3 collected in 2020-2021. And the consumption of the latter should increase further, with the construction of a new factory of 20,000 m2 on his site.

Boreholes to draw directly from the water table

Since the arrival of semiconductor factories in the 1990s, the drinking water network in the Grenoble region, whose population has increased, has continued to expand. The company SGS-Thomson (future STMicroelectronics) had conditioned its installation the existence of a water supply in sufficient quantity and quality »recalls Antoine Brochet, researcher at the Institute of Environmental Geosciences (IGE) from Grenoble. The union of the time and the member municipalities then went into debt for years to build the necessary infrastructure.

These wafers, used for the manufacture of electronic chips, are useful to many industries (aeronautics, automotive, medical, artificial intelligence, etc.).

Even today, the volumes consumed by manufacturers force Eaux de Grenoble Alpes to adapt its infrastructures. Gradually, the public company increases the volume of water produced, from 28 million m3 in 2016, to nearly 31 million m3 in 2021. In its 2020 activity report, Eaux de Grenoble Alpes confessed that the infrastructures conveying water have clearly reached their limits and are no longer adapted to current and near future needs ». The company also stressed the need to carry out certain works urgently to meet the needs of manufacturers by meeting demand in the very short term ».

Overloading increases the chances of a water break »

In its 2021 report, Eaux de Grenoble Alpes further underlined, more worryingly, that the overuse of installations increases the risk of water breaks with significant impacts for the territory and even beyond ». The company indicates that it has carried out several reinforcement work operations on the network, in a context of significant technical tension ». For its part, the community of communes of Grésivaudan, on the territory of which are installed ST and Soitec, launched a public market at the end of 2021 for strengthen the drinking water supply due to the significant increase in short-term industrial needs »with additional needs to be met for summer 2022 ».

In addition to being supplied by the public network, ST also obtained, in March 2022, authorization from the State to dig two permanent boreholes on its soil, to draw directly from the water table. These boreholes should allow ST to harvest 2.6 million m3 additional per year. They will surely make more »wants to believe Aimeric Mougeot. Next mobilization meeting on the side of the activists of STOP Micro: March 22, World Water Day.

Contacted, Eaux de Grenoble Alpes did not respond to Reporterre.

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