Facebook’s Green Data Center, Powered by Coal?

Here’s an interesting wrinkle on the unveiling of the new Facebook data center in Prineville, Oregon. In announcing the facility, Facebook emphasized its energy efficiency and use of renewable power resources. Cheap, green hydro power was a major attraction when Google built a data center in Oregon, so it was assumed that the Facebook data center would be supported primarily by hydro power from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).

Not so, according to Matt Stansberry from SearchDataCenter. Matt, an Oregon resident, took a closer look at the utility power that will support Facebook.  

“Pacific Power, a utility owned by PacifiCorp, will provide the electricity” in Prineville, Matt writes. “While Pacific Power gets some hydropower from BPA, its primary power-generation fuel is coal, according to Jason Carr, the manager of the Prineville office of economic development for Central Oregon.”

It turns out the BPA will soon be implementing a tiered pricing system in which new customers will pay a higher rate to offset the costs of non-hydro generation the BPA will purchase to meet growing demand.

“With the price of hydropower increasing in the Northwest, Facebook opted to bet on the incremental price increases associated with coal rather than face tier-two pricing from BPA,” Matt writes.

This is a good example of the “clean vs. cheap” dilemma faced by data centers with massive power requirements. Companies like Google and Facebook want to be as green as possible, but must also control costs. The economics of on-site generation of using wind or solar power still don’t add up for most providers. That means the best way to use more renewable energy in the data center is to buy it from the utility company. 

You’d think sourcing clean power would be straightforward in a state like Oregon, where hydro represents about 60 percent of power generation. As Facebook illustrates, the tension between environmental green and economic green is usually resolved in favor of the greenbacks.

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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  1. This is a great example of a short sighted approach to buying energy. The price for coal at point of delivery might be lower on a day to day basis that Hydro, but the long term costs of coal as a result of the negative environmental impact mean that coal is probably much more expensive. A good analogy would be the taxes paid by smokers. Some of that tax is supposed to be used to help pay for the health costs created by second hand smoke inhalation. At some point this decision by Facebook might come back to bite them in the form of taxes similar to those paid by smokers.

  2. See my blog post on this today at the above link. I include empirical data on this very subject. LEED Platinum + Coal = Try again...

  3. We just started a petition on Change.org which asking Mark Zuckerberg to reconsider using an alternative energy source for the new data center, like Google and Microsoft. You can check it out at: http://www.change.org/actions/view/stop_facebook_from_switching_to_dirty_coal

  4. Lee Weinstein

    I'm writing on behalf of Facebook to share their response to the issues you've posed. Most electrical commercial and residential power in the United States comes from a variety of sources. Our new data center will be receiving our power through PacifiCorp, which like most utilities has a diverse generation portfolio including hydro, geothermal, wind and coal. PacifiCorp is now the #1 utility owner operator of renewables, having grown their portfolio 2,400 percent over the past three years. When it comes online in early 2011, the new Facebook data center will also be one of the most energy efficient in the world, featuring an innovative cooling system created for the unique climate characteristics in Prineville, Oregon. The new, world class energy-efficiency technologies the Facebook data center will utilize include an evaporative cooling system; an airside economizer that will bring colder air in from the outside; re-use of server heat to warm office space in the colder months; and new patent pending highly efficient electrical design will reduce electricity usage by up to 12 percent. The entire facility will be built to LEED Gold standards. The State of Oregon has a very aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard, calling for 25 percent of power in the state to be produced by renewable resources by 2025. Facebook believes this policy will ensure continued growth of renewable generation resources. Facebook's commitment is, regardless of generation source, to use electricity as wisely and as efficiently as possible. Thanks for your consideration. Lee