EcoMeme: Facebook Under Fire for Coal Powered Data Center

coal fire

Facebook is the second largest website in the US and the default social network of many environmental activists, where they (ok, we) go to develop supportive networks, raise awareness and funds for good causes. It’s also a platform for some excellent, environmental-fundraising games like Lil’ Green Patch (acquired by social games company Playdom in 2009) and Sea Garden (a MobScience game).

Obviously the environmental community, on and off Facebook, felt betrayed when the social media leader, in late January, announced its plans to build a data center in Prineville, Oregon that will be contrarily LEED-gold certified, yet run on coal power.

Yes, coal – that’s lump in your stocking, fine particles in the air and lungs, carbon dioxide-emitting coal.

Facebook’s data center electricity provider in Oregon will be PacifiCorp., a utility that is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, and generates most of its power from coal according to reports by SearchDataCenter.

The information and communications technology sector, according to Gartner research, is already as bad as and quickly surpassing the aviation industry in terms of global CO2 emissions. Why would Facebook – which has enjoyed a reputation as a game changer, and innovator – make the ICT sector worse, by going with the fuel that the Natural Resources Defense Council identifies as a top source of mercury pollution in the U.S., and a health threat to all who live near coal power plants?

End users do like free, or ad-sponsored Facebook. And coal power remains cheaper than cleaner alternatives like natural gas, or hydroelectric power (which has its own problems including damaging fish populations and rivers). But Facebook has said in a series of interviews that it focused on building an efficient data center, rather than the source of power it will use. We’re surprised an industry leader thought one good thing was good enough.

Is it unreasonable to ask Facebook to offer its services free to end users, but to buy more expensive, green power? Or, given their lack of environmental responsibility on this one, would you be willing to abandon your Facebook profile entirely?

Basic Reading:

“Criticism from Greenpeace and has attracted national attention within the information technology industry, catching Facebook off guard. ‘This has been a big learning experience for us,’ said Facebook spokeswoman Kathleen Loughlin. ‘We’re six years old. We’ve never owned a data center before. We’ve never owned land before…The energy source is one factor,’ Loughlin said, ‘but how we’re going to use that energy is another equally important, if not more important, factor to consider.'” A news feature by Mike Rogoway for The Oregonian

“After having rented out data center space in Silicon Valley and elsewhere for years, Facebook is now building its own data center in scenic Prineville, located in central Oregon. It’s a symbolic step for the company, which started out on an $80/month shared server just under six years ago.” – An InsideFacebook article detailing some of the efficient features planned for the company’s new data center

“For the first time Facebook will have its own facility but unlike Google or Microsoft, which both built data centers in the same area running off hydroelectric power, Facebook’s facility will be powered by dirty coal…” – An anti-coal petition from to Facebook’s CEO, with about 8,000 signatures as of Feb. 25, 2010

“The only truly green data centers are the ones running on renewable energy…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.” – GreenPeace press officer Daniel Kessler via a HuffingtonPost op-ed

Further Resources:

“Coal accounts for a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide,” reported in the New York Times‘ Green Inc. blog

A story on the waste problems created by coal power plants in B’More Green

A round-up of some of the green IT practices and technologies used by tech giants including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook from Earth2Tech

Ironically, last April, Intel called for users to submit ideas via Facebook video submission about How to Green Data Centers, via Treehugger

A “clean coal” debunking site that includes a public service announcement ad created by the Coen brothers

Image: Nick Perla

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of EcoMeme, a column featuring eco news, tech and trends by EcoSalon writer and columnist Lora Kolodny.