Facebook and Greenpeace Continue Their Green Catfight

By Tracey E. Schelmetic September 02, 2010

Green data centers are a hot topic these days. After cloud computing, it’s the second most written about topic in the tech industry. According to some research, data centers are responsible for about 2 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, and this figure will only increase as more developing nations launch themselves into the tech industries. In essence, a “green data center” is a facility that uses the most efficient systems possible in terms of energy savings: mechanical, lighting, electrical, computer systems and the cooling equipment used to keep these systems running. As more companies look to not only “go green” but cut down on energy bills and the space needed for servers, the more attractive they find the prospect of energy-efficient equipment.

So it’s not surprising then, that it would start to spawn a few “greener than thou” disputes.

One such catfight has popped up between Facebook and Greenpeace. Earlier this year, Facebook announced that it was building a new “green” data center that would include all the green touch-points: evaporative cooling systems, airside economizing (bringing cooler outside air into server rooms to cool equipment naturally), the capture and reuse of server heat to warm work spaces in winter and strategic use of continuous uninterruptible power supply (UPS) technology. When completed, the facility was expected to attain a PUE (power usage effectiveness rating) of 1.15, which, it appears, isn’t good enough for some.

Greenpeace challenged Facebook to go further and phase out its use of coal-fired electricity in favor of renewable sources, and to disclose its greenhouse gas emissions. Using Facebook’s own service, the environmental group signed up more than 500,000 Facebook users to support its case.

In a letter to the social networking giant, Greenpeace wrote, "As you are aware, following Facebook’s announcement to build a new data center in Prineville, Oregon, Greenpeace and over half a million Facebook users have expressed significant concerns with your decision to power this data center with dirty coal-fired electricity from PacificCorp, which runs an electricity mix that is disproportionately powered by coal, the largest source of global warming pollution.”

Essentially, Greenpeace is pointing out that despite any internal steps Facebook might take to green its new data center, it still draws its power from PacificCorp, which largely sells “dirty” energy: that is, power that is disproportionately derived from methods that pollute, such as coal burning, as opposed to renewable sources such as solar and wind. (Greenpeace recently praised Google for investing in a wind farm.)

Facebook is not taking the criticism lying down, however. The social networking company has pointed out that Greenpeace isn’t in a position to throw stones. Reporters in Oregon recently dug up evidence that Greenpeace’s data centers aren’t exactly squeaky clean: the group’s offices in New York and San Francisco draw power from energy companies that have no better a mix of renewables than PacificCorp, and its primary data center draws power from a Dutch utility company that is low-carbon on paper only: its small carbon footprint is not due to the efficiency of its operations, but because it uses carbon credits from the European market to offset its emissions.

Said Barry Schnitt, Facebook's director of policy communications, “As recently as March of this year, [Greenpeace] indicated that they had a number of servers in a rented data center in northern Virginia. Their representative commented that these servers are ‘using whatever the grid mix is in Virginia’. The reporter on the story estimates that mix to be 46 percent from coal, 41 percent from nuclear, eight percent from natural gas, and just four percent of its power from renewable generation."


Tracey Schelmetic is a contributing editor for TechZone360. To read more of Tracey's articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Beecher Tuttle

TechZone360 Contributor

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