Facebook’s Coal-Powered Problem

Facebook this week is learning some hard lessons about hazards of assuming the mantle of environmentally responsible business practices. Initially, the social networking giant’s first-ever data center build, currently under construction in Prineville, Ore., was hailed as a model of forward-thinking green data center design. Many of the hallmarks are there, including a PUE goal of 1.15, free-cooling, LEED Gold aspirations and buzz surrounding its approach to super-efficient custom severs. The mood was somewhat celebratory and Facebook was showered with goodwill. That is, until someone dropped a four-letter word: coal.

News got out that Facebook’s data center would be served by PacifiCorp, which generates most of the electricity for the region with coal-fired plants. It’s not exactly a secret; someone was bound to make the connection eventually. The problem is that Facebook is now dealing with a new, unwelcome wrinkle in the green story it’s trying to project.

The entire episode is evidence that energy sourcing is starting to matter, obviously from a business and environmental perspective, but also to a company’s image. Last month, my colleague Derrick Harris explored the distinction between energy efficiency in the data center and truly green facilities served by clean energy. As he correctly observes, companies pursue strategies that promote energy efficiency primarily as a cost containment measure. The environmental perks, while a nice bonus, are a secondary concern. Linking Facebook’s data center with coal reinforces this and paints its efforts to improve energy efficiency as a strategy to squeeze more computing capacity out of cheap coal. Sure, it beats wantonly wasting electricity, but it’s not the greenest picture to paint.

Also complicating the matter is that companies like Facebook are held to a higher standard. When your peers are flocking to areas served by hydroelectric power and other renewables, it’s hard not be measured by the same yardstick. Compounding the problem is that other companies are publicizing their energy sourcing details. Yahoo makes no secret that its Lockport, N.Y., facility is serviced by hydroelectric plants, as are datacenters like Microsoft’s in Quincy, Wash. and Google’s in The Dalles, Ore.

What now? Apart from dulling the project’s green veneer and sparking a little outrage, Facebook’s green cred is a little damaged, but not irrevocably broken. Facebook’s measured response to the situation — essentially touting the region’s renewable energy progress and reiterating its stance on energy efficiency — is a start, but it needs to do more. Finances permitting, a substantive solar and/or wind installation or carbon offsets (and, of course, the subsequent media attention) could help restore some of the lost luster.

For other firms, this as a lesson in calibrating your green message to reflect the times. As Facebook’s experience shows, a green data center is no longer evaluated just by its LEED credentials and efficiency features, but also by how it derives the energy required to power its servers. Sure, users may not know, or even care, that their status updates and emails are coursing through polluting data centers. However, if your corporate identity is becoming increasingly synonymous with environmentally responsible business practices, it’s time to take energy sourcing into account before others start filling in the chapters of your company’s eco-handbook for you.

Question of the week

Can a data center that derives power from coal-fired plants be considered truly green?
Relevant analyst in green data centers
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  1. I’ll go out on a limb and say, yes. I’m still not convinced that coal is the question, here. (I wasn’t sure I agreed with Derrick when he wrote the piece about a need for clean-energy powered data centers, a few weeks ago, either.) While, yes, there is an ongoing need for renewable/clean energy sources to power everything from our dishwashers to our data centers, I still think efficiency takes precedence. My favorite analogy goes like this: “Building out renewable energy resources before undertaking energy-efficiency initiatives is like buying a bunch of new suits right before going on a diet.” It just doesn’t make sense. An energy-efficient data center will, whether powered by coal or hydropower, still consume less energy and have less of a negative impact on the environment than an energy-hogging one. Building out clean energy sources doesn’t mean we can go hog wild on our energy consumption — wind turbines and solar panels still have an environmental/land-use footprint, cause social conflict over views/sightline, require copious chemical and resource inputs to build, and they can only produce so much power within these constraints. The more energy we can squeeze out of operating data centers (and any other building or activity), the quicker we can shutter coal plants and power our world with renewables.

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    1. Agreed that efficiency trumps, at least at this stage of the game. Something that occurred to me after writing this and seeing all the flack it’s been catching — http://content.usatoday.com/communities/greenhouse/post/2010/02/facebook-gets-slammed-by-environmentalists/1 — is that a company that’s built on such a strong social component is not only held to a higher standard, but perhaps a different one. Do folks automatically expect Facebook to be a green trailblazer from the get-go?

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