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Is Facebook Green Enough?

by on November 12, 2010

Making data centers more energy efficient isn’t just a warm and fuzzy issue for companies. It’s an operational necessity. Money saved on data center operations benefits organizations as a whole by contributing to a healthier bottom line.

Green_facebook Businesses, though, aren’t the only beneficiaries of the movement to make data centers green. If data centers use less energy, then the environment should benefit, too, and everyone should be happy. Right? Not quite.

For months now Greenpace has been on Facebook’s case for building a massive data center in Prineville, Oregon. The  environmental activists have rapped Facebook for buying electricity from a utililty that depends too much on fossil fuels to generate power.

While Facebook acknowledged that the utility generates 58 percent of its power from coal, compared to the national average of 50 percent, the social networking titan argues that it has very sound environmental reasons for choosing the site for its new data center. By locating the facility in a temperate climate, it can forgo the use of power hungry chillers for energy efficient evaporative coolers. In addition, by consolidating its data centers into a single facility, it can meet its energy needs more efficiently. It estimates that the Power Usage Effectiveness rating of the new facility will be 1.15. That compares very favorably with the industry’s leader, Google, which has a rating of 1.17.

“[I]t is simply untrue to say that we chose coal as a source of power,” Facebook Policy Communications Director Barry Schnitt wrote in a comment to a blog posted at the Greenpeace website.

“The suggestions of choosing coal ignores the fact that there is no such thing as a coal-powered data center,” he continued. “Similarly, there is no such thing as a hydroelectric-powered data center. Every data center plugs into the grid offered by their utility or power provider. The electrons powering that data center are produced by the various sources.”

Not only is that true for Facebook, but for Greenpeace, too, he noted. For example, the organization’s servers in Northern Virginia use power from a utility that produces 46 percent of its electricity from coal and only four percent from renewable energy. (Pacific Power, where Facebook’s new data center will be buying energy, has 20 percent renewable sources in its mix.)

While conceding that Greenpeace’s technology infrastructure is small compared to Facebook’s, Schnitt pointed out, “if an organization focused on environmental responsibility like Greenpeace can’t do better than the mix above for just a few servers, what options are available to Facebook?”

However, Facebook has recently taken a more proactive approach to their green PR problem. Earlier this month they joined the research group the Digital Energy Solutions Campaign, which looks at how information technology can be used to fight climate change. They have also unveiled the Green on Facebook page, which allows green information and ideas to be shared and acted upon in an easier fashion. It also give Facebook an outlook to state their green mission with the company.

There’s a lot of people on both sides of this. What do you think? Does Facebook have the responsibility to make their data centers more environmentally friendly? Does Greenpeace have the right to demand action from Facebook? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section.

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