Facebook is Between a Rock and a Greenpeace


Photo credit: pshab via Flickr/Creative Commons

The "rock" in that exceedingly clever headline above refers, of course, to coal. You may have heard that FaceBook recently chose to power a new energy-hungry data server with coal-fired electricity at a new location up in Oregon. Greenpeace, and others, scolded the company--which many consider among the most innovative in the world--for making an big investment in the dirty fuel. Facebook retorted that by housing the server in the cool climes of Oregon, the equipment wouldn't need cooling equipment and would therefore be more efficient and less carbon intensive than if they had moved it to a location with access to more renewable power. So who's right? Is Facebook playing dirty, or is Greenpeace too harsh?Here's part of Greenpeace International's statement:

Facebook should be run on 100 percent renewable energy ... Companies who run their data centres on energy from burning coal are supporting the biggest source of man made CO2 emissions in the world ... getting companies like Facebook to switch to renewables is necessary for the energy revolution too -- reducing demand for coal, and investing in a green future instead.
The idea being, a progressive mammoth like Facebook should use its influence to demand power from a utility that can provide more renewable energy, and thus help the market for clean power grow.

Facebook's rebuttal? This:

... if we located the data center most other places, we would need mechanical chillers, use more energy, and be responsible for more overall carbon in the air--even if that location was fueled by more renewable energy.
Which makes sense to Dave Roberts of Grist. He argues that Greenpeace is being too hard on Facebook:
Its new data center will involve all sorts of efficiency efforts, but the company's main argument is that the dry, temperate climate in Oregon will allow it to forego any mechanical chillers or air conditioners (an evaporative cooling system will be used instead) ... In other words, in this individual case, efficiency trumps clean energy. I'm not really qualified to do the math, but it sounds persuasive to me.
He goes on to note that it's a little ridiculous to think Facebook could feasibly demand 100% renewable power from a utility, seeing as how the utility can't decide to send "only clean electrons" to Facebook even if it wanted to. Roberts likes Greanpeace's campaign, but feels Facebook is getting the short end of the stick.

I, however, am leaning more towards Greenpeace on this one--despite all the fancy energy efficiency stuff and LEED certification (which is important, don't get me wrong), Facebook would have been doing far more for a clean energy economy by rewarding a region or utility that had more renewable energy in the mix with its business. The slightly greater emissions generated from running more cooling equipment would be more than offset by the clear signal that could be sent to the energy industry: that forward-looking companies with big contracts up for grabs demand clean energy.

Building energy efficient equipment and getting LEED certified just isn't enough to turn the tide from a dirty-fuel based economy--making real demands that could cost energy companies business if they don't clean up their act will.

Nonetheless, it's certainly a tough call, and fair to say that Facebook is between a rock and a hard place on this one.

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