Facebook's Response to Greenpeace

The environmental group Greenpeace International says Facebook should rethink plans for its new Oregon data center and is urging Facebook users to join a group calling for the new facility to run entirely on renewable energy.

The environmental group Greenpeace International says Facebook should rethink plans for its new Oregon data center and is urging Facebook users to join a group calling for the new facility to run entirely on renewable energy, rather than using utility power that generates a majority of its power from coal. After we noted Facebook's response in our comments earlier this week, the issue has been getting attention from environmental groups and green blogs, which then sparked interest from Greenpeace.

"Given the massive amounts of electricity that even energy-efficient data centers consume to run computers, backup power units, and power related cooling equipment, the last thing we need to be doing is building them in places where they are increasing demand for dirty coal-fired power," the group said in a statment, which was published on the Greenpeace web site and also on The Huffington Post. "Facebook and the cloud should be run on clean renewable energy ... Facebook could and should be championing clean energy solutions, and not relying on the dirty fuel sources of the past to power their new data center."

Greenpeace has urged Facebook users to join a Facebook group titled Tell Facebook to use Clean Energy for its Data Center.

"It is simply untrue to say that we chose coal as a source of power," Facebook said in response to Greenpeace. "The suggestions of 'choosing coal' ignores the fact that there is no such thing as a coal-powered data center. 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."

Here is Facebook's updated response, in its entirety:

Overall, we're thrilled at our choice in Oregon and that we're challenging the industry to think creatively to meet the standards we've set in efficiency. As we continue to grow, we’re committed to environmental responsibility and will be seeking and evaluating more ways to minimize and offset our impact on the planet. In selecting Oregon, we chose a region that offers a uniquely dry and temperate climate. This climate enables us to design what we believe to be one of, if not the most, energy efficient data centers in the world. Specifically, most data centers use mechanical chillers or large air conditioners for part, if not all, of the year to cool the computers within the facility. These mechanical chillers use a lot of energy and are only exceeded in their energy use by the thousands of computers inside the data center. Because of the climate around Prineville and our unique design, we won’t use any mechanical chillers. None. We won’t even build any. Instead, the data center will use an innovative evaporative cooling system.

Here is an example to illustrate. Imagine two identical houses with all of the same power consumption inside (appliances, electronics, etc.) only one is cooled by a large air conditioner and the other is cooled by ceiling fans. Obviously, the house with the fans will use significantly less energy. That’s why you may get rebates from your power company when you install a ceiling fan and why our data center will use less energy to deliver our service to users. In case you’re wondering, we’ll also be using industry-leading and our own innovative technology to keep the computers themselves much more efficient than industry averages.

At the same time, it is simply untrue to say that we chose coal as a source of power. The suggestions of “choosing coal” ignores the fact that there is no such thing as a coal-powered data center. 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 (e.g. hydro, natural gas, coal, geothermal, nuclear, etc.) the provider uses in proportions similar to the mix of sources used. That is, if 25% of the providers energy comes from natural gas, it’s a good guess that 25% of the electrons powering the facility come from that source. Even when a facility is in close proximity to an individual source of energy, such a dam or coal plant, there is no guarantee that the electrons from that source are flowing to the facility at any particular time.

It’s true that the local utility for the region we chose, Pacific Power, has an energy mix that is weighted slightly more toward coal than the national average. However, the efficiency we are able to achieve because of the climate of the region and the reduced energy usage that results minimizes our overall carbon footprint. Said differently, 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.

In addition, we plan to have our data center in Prineville for a long time so when considering the sources of energy, we took a long term view. Pacific Power, the energy provider we’ll use in Oregon, has an aggressive plan for increasing their renewable energy mix. In fact, their most recent plan calls for having more than 2,000 megawatts of renewable resources by 2013. Thus, our data center is only going to get more green over time as these resources come on line and contribute even greater portions of the facility’s energy.

NOTE: The Facebook protest group has had periods in which it was unavailable, as Greenpeace notes. "If the link doesn't work, please be patient and refresh your browser," it says. "Our Facebook group has "mysteriously" appeared, gone down, and then back up."

The group was offline for about 12 hours Friday, during which group founder Dietrich Muylaert accused Facebook of "undemocratic, totalitarian tactics."

After an inquiry from Data Center Knowledge, Facebook restored the group. "This group was disabled in error and has been reactivated," the company said. "We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this has caused."

One possible issue may be the steps used to promote the group. At the time the group was initally disabled, Muylaert said "there were over 3,000 invitations to join the group, send out by its members, which were not yet responded upon." Some of these appear to have been through a lengthy series of identical tweets through Muylaert's Twitter account, which now appear to have been deleted. If Facebook receives complaints about unsolicited emails or tweets to promote a group, it would be likely to review the group’s status.

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