Climate Corps 2011: A Facebook Hackathon Dedicated to Energy Efficiency

EDF Climate Corps

Climate Corps 2011: A Facebook Hackathon Dedicated to Energy Efficiency

It's 9:45 pm on a Tuesday, and I'm hunched over a laptop at a desk that isn't mine, while two men clip wires to an electrical panel and onlookers crane their heads expectantly. Techno music blares from just around the corner, courtesy of a mustachioed DJ wearing a cape. Someone asks, "Did you set the CT amp rating?" Someone else announces, "I'm going to go stare down the espresso machine."

This is not your typical day (or night) at the office. We're at Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters, and this is a Hackathon.

Our charge as EDF Climate Corps fellows is to make the business case for energy efficiency in the context of each company's unique culture. We need to know the terminology that resonates with different decision-makers and understand how environmental responsibility aligns with the company's core mission.

So on this Tuesday night, I'm here not only for the literal task at hand -- getting a data-logging power meter up and running -- but to understand a bit more of what Facebook is really about and what its own particular brand of energy management might look like.

Here are some lessons I've absorbed from a late night at Facebook:

Do it yourself. To establish a baseline for the energy consumed by pluggable devices (computers, appliances, and so on), we need a plug load audit. I'm researching energy auditing services when we catch wind of a rumor: A Hackathon is coming up!

When one of these events is announced at Facebook, people put aside their "real" work and stay late, sometimes all night, to turn cool new ideas into functioning prototypes. So we throw together our own Facilities/Green/Climate Corps Hackathon team. We gather as much metering equipment as we can and draw up worksheets for recording data.

After dinner we dispatch a small army of volunteers to comb the buildings with Kill A Watt meters to measure the wattage of coffeemakers, conference room screens, computer monitors, beverage coolers, anything they can find with a plug. The chief building engineer helps us hook up some ELITEpro meters directly to circuits on electrical panels so we can monitor the energy use of whole departments over time.

By the time the last volunteer has bowed out, yawning, we've collected plenty of data to sketch a profile of our office plug load. Not bad for a night's work.

Find it for free. We got all that metering equipment without paying a dime thanks to my fellow EDF Climate Corps fellow here at Facebook, Esra Kucukciftci. Before her first day on the job, she connected with the Pacific Energy Center, PG&E's educational and advisory resource for commercial building efficiency. Through the PEC's Tool Lending Library, we currently have over a dozen electricity meters and other equipment on loan for the duration of our fellowships.

Esra is also bringing in several PEC experts for free consultations on potential projects we're exploring for Facebook's new campus. And we're drawing on the wealth of resources EDF provides for Climate Corps fellows, such as topic-specific expert calls, the E-Source Corporate Energy Managers Consortium, and discussion threads on the EDF Climate Corps' private online forum.

Make it social. Hackathons are as much about bringing people together and having fun as they are about working feverishly. About half of Facebook's Facilities department turns up to help with our project, sharing stories and ideas as we pass out the power meters.

A guy from IT gives us beginner lessons on Ripstiks, those twisty skateboard-like things that many Facebookers use to zoom around the office. I strike up a conversation with the VP of Engineering. I wander into a conference-room-turned-music-jam-session and play some drums with college interns taking a break from their all-night coding sprint.

We even make friends with the coffee vendor on her nightly rounds, after she politely informs us that she has to reprogram all the coffee machines we've unplugged (oops). The conversation actually reveals some valuable insights on how the kitchen amenities are maintained and new ways we might be able to save both electricity and water.

These unexpected connections help paint a more complete picture of the people we work with -- the same people, if all goes well, who will champion energy efficiency after we leave and implement the projects we've identified.

The next morning, there are interns sleeping all over the office: conference rooms, lobby couches, under desks. I'm pretty tired myself. For the deeper glimpse into what makes this company tick, though, it was well worth a few hours of lost sleep.

Photo CC-licensed by Abigail Thompson.