Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Greenpeace v. Facebook: should energy be renewable or efficient?

A few weeks back I talked to Kumi Naidoo, the head of Greenpeace International - a pretty wide ranging interview that included him throwing down with Facebook on their use of coal power.

Naidoo told me:

Their electricity needs will multiply at least by three to four times what it is now. So how they plan and invest, in terms of thinking about their energy needs, is critically, critically important. Facebook, in terms of its new data center in Pineville, Oregon, has some good things about it. However, to have a dependency that the majority of the generation of the electricity is coming from coal just doesn't make sense."

After Naidoo stepped to, Facebook has stepped up - its publicity, anyway - on the Pineville site.

In a blog post on FB, FB VP Jonathan Heiliger wrote of the company's redesign from the ground up:

Because we started with a clean slate, we had total control over every part of the system, from the software to the servers to the data center. This meant we could:
    •    Use a 480-volt electrical distribution system to reduce energy loss.
    •    Remove anything in our servers that didn’t contribute to efficiency.
    •    Reuse hot aisle air in winter to both heat the offices and the outside air flowing into the data center.
    •    Eliminate the need for a central uninterruptible power supply.
The result is that our Prineville data center uses 38 percent less energy to do the same work as Facebook’s existing facilities, while costing 24 percent less.

Facebook also has just announced the Open Compute Project - where they're sharing the designs they've come up with, down to the nitty-gritty like server specs - the idea being that any company with servers and networks can make itself energy efficient.

In media interviews, Heiliger has downplayed the importance of the energy source - coal - compared to the amount used. "We think coal is actually a small issue in the grand scheme of energy efficiency," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Instead of worrying about what energy source you may choose and the impact of that source on the environment, the best way of improving CO{-2} (emissions) and improving the environment is to cut energy consumption."

Energy efficiency is a great way to cut consumption. It's also the cheapest way to green up energy for a business. It's more expensive to cut greenhouse gasses by choosing renewable energy sources. But once everything is efficient as all hell, spending the money is the only thing left.

Greenpeace is looking to make a symbolic stand, asking Facebook and other big companies to get off coal by Earth Day. Facebook has its own symbol: we're innovators, and we redesigned our product's infrastructure from the ground up. Are you lining up behind Facebook's choices or Greenpeace's demands? Seems a little like a question my friend Andrew Sell used to ask: did you drive to work, or do you want the hot lunch? A false opposition. Somewhere in the middle is the grid, our national energy policy, and regional energy sources. Making one choice now doesn't preclude the possibility or absolve the responsibility of deciding on another one later.