Finding renewable energy sources for huge data centers is a daunting challenge. It’s a far more complex issue than reflected in recent headlines, in which the environmental group Greenpeace International has bashed Facebook over its power choices for a new data center the social network is building in Oregon.
In its stinging critique of Facebook's power sourcing, Greenpeace asserts that "the only truly green data centers are the ones running on renewable energy." Given that stance, one might expect Greenpeace's hosting operations to be housed in a "truly green data center" powered entirely by 100 percent renewable energy.
You'd be wrong. Although Greenpeace has taken steps to account for the carbon impact of much of its IT infrastructure, some of its servers are housed in data centers powered primarily by coal and nuclear power.
RECs, Offsets and Wind-Sourced Power (Mostly)
Greenpeace hosts its main web site in a Global Switch data center in Amsterdam. Gary Cook, a Climate Policy Advisor for the Greenpeace CoolIT Campaign, says Greenpeace chose the site because Global Switch bought renewable energy certificates (RECs) to offset the carbon output of its data center facility.
“We’re definitely trying to run the greenest operation we can,” said Cook. “We’re buying RECs because we want to put our money where our mouth is.” The organization’s U.S. operations include about 30 servers housed in its Washington D.C. office, which is supported by wind power purchased from West Virginia, Cook said.
But Greenpeace also has a number of servers in a colocation center in northern Virginia. “They’re using whatever the grid mix is in Virginia,” said Cook, who added that the colo deal was arranged about five years ago. “At that point in time, there weren’t providers that met our requirements (for renewable energy). We’re in the process of reworking some of our IT infrastructure, and we’ll clean that up.”
Most data centers in northern Virginia are supplied by Dominion Virginia Power, which gets 46 percent of its production from coal, 41 percent from nuclear, 8 percent from natural gas, and just 4 percent of its power from renewable generation.
Greenpeace criticized Facebook for its decision to locate its new data center in Prineville, Oregon, where the facility will receive utility power from PacificCorp., which relies on coal for the majority of its power generation.
A Higher Standard?
Is Greenpeace holding Facebook to a higher standard than it applies to its own Internet operations? Cook says the data center industry’s largest power users have a higher obligation to use renewable energy to power their servers.
“We’re drawing attention to Facebook’s practices because Facebook has a much bigger energy choice to make because of the size of its data centers,” said Cook. “Ultimately, we need to be driving more and more toward renewable energy sources and use less coal. These are really important investments.
"We don’t want these data centers to unintentionally increase demand for coal," Cook said. "If you’re building data centers in places that will lead to increased demand for coal-based electricity, that’s a problem. We’re trying to challenge the data center sector to provide IT solutions with as low a carbon output as possible."
Are Offsets Enough?
What if Facebook simply bought renewable energy certificates to offset the carbon overhead from its utility provider, as Greenpeace has done for its hosting operation?
"If you offset those emissions with RECs, that’s better than doing nothing, but you’ve still increased demand for a load center that’s dependent on coal," Cook said. "A lot of these companies are trying to do the right thing. They need to be transparent about the carbon problem. We’re really looking for stronger leadership."
Is Power Sourcing The Right Focus?
We have previously noted the growing interest in using renewable power in data centers, and the growing prominence of utility energy sourcing in site selection issues. Cook made it clear that Greenpeace intends to remain engaged on the issue of data centers using renewable energy.
It's a development foreseen by Nick Carr back in November 2006. "As soon as activists, and the public in general, begin to understand how much electricity is wasted by computing and communication systems – and the consequences of that waste for the environment and in particular global warming – they’ll begin demanding that the makers and users of information technology improve efficiency dramatically," Nick wrote. "Greenpeace and its rainbow warriors will soon storm the data center – your data center."
That moment has arrived. But is Greenpeace storming the wrong data center? In seeking to shame Facebook for difficult choices about utility energy sourcing, is Greenpeace targeting a company that should be seen as an ally, not an enemy?
'As Efficiently As Possible'
That's Facebook's view, which was outlined in a detailed response to Greenpeace. In building its own data center, Facebook is investing more than $180 million in improved energy efficiency. The company says the new facility in Prineville will allow Facebook to be "greener" than the third-party LEED Platinum and LEED Gold data centers where it has leased space during its growth phase.
“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.
"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," Facebook added. "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.
"Facebook’s commitment is, regardless of generation source, to use electricity as wisely and as efficiently as possible.”
In making headlines with its critique of Facebook, Greenpeace has accomplished part of its goal by making renewable energy a front-of-mind issue for large companies building new data centers. The resulting headlines have raised awareness. But what comes next? The "truly green" power Greenpeace yearns for would likely require data center operators to enter the renewable generation business at utility scale, which is outside the business scope of most social networks.
In the meantime, power sourcing likely continues to move up the check list of data center site selection criteria, as industry groups step up their engagement with utility providers, as The Green Grid has recently pledged.
Here's a look back at our previous coverage of Facebook's energy efficiency and its Prineville data center:
- Facebook Goes Green With New Data Center Space: The fast-growing social network’s infrastructure isn’t just getting bigger, it’s getting greener with its leasing of LEED Gold and Platinum data centers.
- Should Servers Come With Batteries? The data center team at Facebook believes it should, and is pledging to share its best practices as it presses its case for change.
- Facebook to Build Its Own Data Centers: The company has grown to the point where the economics favor a shift to a custom-built infrastructure.
- It's Official: Facebook is Oregon's Company X: Facebook says the 147,000 square foot Prineville data center is expected to have a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) rating of 1.15..
- Facebook's Green Data Center: Powered By Coal?While Prineville are utility Pacific Power gets some hydropower from BPA, its primary power-generation fuel is coal.
- Facebook Responds on Coal Power in Data Center: Cites LEED Gold design, grwoing mix of renewables in future power sourcing.
- Facebook's Response to Greenpeace: "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."