Facebook Responds on Coal Power in Data Center

Facebook has responded to growing criticism of its reliance upon its power choices for its new data center in Prineville, Oregon. This is one of the first cases in which a data center's energy sourcing has attracted this kind of public attention, but it won't be the last.

An architectural rendering of the new Facebook data center planned for Prineville, Oregon.

Facebook has responded to growing criticism of its power choices for its new data center in Prineville, Oregon. This is one of the first cases in which a data center's energy sourcing has attracted this kind of public attention, but it won't be the last.  

Earlier this month we noted a report that Facebook's new Oregon data center, which has been designed to be highly energy-efficient, would be getting its power from a local utility that uses coal to generate the majority of its power. This news, initially reported by SearchDataCenter, has been getting attention from environmental groups and green blogs. The issue was highlighted on TreeHugger and Change.org, and has even led to the creation of a Facebook group (Tell Facebook to use Clean Energy for its Data Center).

Facebook's Response 
Yesterday Facebook responded via our comment section on the original post, with a statement from spokesperson Lee Weinstein. Since Facebook has taken its lumps on this issue, I felt its response should get equal visibility. Here's Weinstein's comment:

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."

I'll circle back to our commentary on the original post: "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." Sometimes that's not as easy as you'd think, even in Oregon.

The irony is that companies like Facebook, which make energy efficiency a priority and are open about their interest in sustainability, are held to a higher standard when it comes to energy sourcing. We've previously noted Facebook's focus on efficiency in the leasing and design of its data centers:

  • Facebook Goes Green With New Data Center Space: The breakout growth of Facebook is turning out to be an economic stimulus plan for data center landlords. And the fast-growing social network’s infrastructure isn’t just getting bigger, it’s getting greener, with a focus on LEED Gold or Platinum facilities.
  • Facebook Follows Google to Data Center Savings: Facebook says it’s streamlining its servers, and also plans to adopt a novel power distribution design pioneered by Google.
  • It's Official: Facebook is Oregon's 'Company X': Facebook says the 147,000 square foot Prineville data center will be designed to LEED Gold standards and is expected to have a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) rating of 1.15.

Google to Face Similar Scrutiny
Another company bearing the weight of high expectations is Google, whose actions are often viewed through the prism of the "don't be evil" sentiment expressed by its founders. The company's sourcing of power for its data centers is likely to come under similar scrutiny. Major media outlets are increasingly interested in Google's energy use in its data centers, including how much it's using and how "green" that power is.

Google is open about its interest in both data center efficiency and sustainability, and its foundation has made significant investments in wind, solar and geothermal power. But the company hasn't been forthcoming about how much electricity its data centers use, and the media's efforts to fill in the blanks can easily go awry. A recent example: the wild-ass guess by The Wall Street Journal that Google's energy use was "roughly equivalent to the output of two large conventional power plants."

Google has made enormous investments in building what it believes are the world's most efficient data centers. Other media outlets are taking a hard look at Google's energy use, and whether it is aligned with its commitment to sustainability. Will Google wait to let others characterize its data center energy use, or disclose more about its current power usage and sourcing and the company's plans to make it more sustainable over time?

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