Facebook shares its carbon footprint

Two Steps Forward

Facebook shares its carbon footprint

Facebook today revealed for the first time information about its carbon footprint, citing the "power of openness." The data, covering the energy use for its data centers and global offices, reflects both the company's efforts to reduce energy use and increase renewable energy consumption, as well as the challenges it faces to steadily improve those efforts.

"We’re releasing this data because we believe in the power of openness, and because we hope that adding another data point to our collective understanding of our industry’s environmental impact will help us all keep improving," the company said in a statement.

At first glance it's a happy story. The company said that last year, its data centers and operations used 532 million kilowatt hours of energy, emitting 285,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. By contrast, Google revealed last year that its carbon footprint equaled nearly 1.5 million metric tons, more than five times Facebook's. (Google's "energy czar" at the time was Bill Weihl, who now serves as Facebook's "sustainability guru.")

For the typical Facebook user, a year's worth of liking and posting consumes just 269 grams of carbon equivalent — "roughly the same carbon footprint as one medium latte," the company pointed out. "Or three large bananas. Or a couple of glasses of wine." To put that in perspective, a typical U.S. household's annual carbon footprint is about 48 tons, according to the Cool Climate Network at the University of California, Berkeley. Suffice to say, that's a helluva lot of lattes.

But Facebook is quick to note that "as a fast-growing company our carbon footprint and energy mix may get worse before they get better." That's due primarily to the challenges of sourcing sufficient clean power where the company sites its data centers. Facebook's goal is to source 25 percent of its power from clean-energy sources by 2015, which is only a tad better than the 23 percent of "clean and renewable" energy the company now uses. Still, according to Facebook, achieving 25 percent "is going to be a stretch for us, and we’re still figuring out exactly what it will take to get there."

Facebook's energy mix will start to improve in 2014, when it opens a massive data center in Lulea, Sweden, about 60 miles from the Arctic Circle, located near hydropower stations on a river that generates twice as much electricity as the Hoover Dam. Facebook's newest data center, in Forest City, North Carolina, opened in April and is claimed to be one of the most energy efficient in the world. Facebook’s Prineville data center in Washington State was built to use only free coolng.

The company has committed to "including a renewable energy component to every new data center we build so we can learn more about what such investments mean for Facebook."

Facebook has been facing activist pressures to improve and report its carbon emissions. Last year, Greenpeace launched a campaign to swear off power from coal-fired power plants. The activist group launched an Unfriend Coal campaign to enlist Facebook's nearly 1 billion members to pressure the social media company. Today, Greenpeace lauded Facebook, calling it "an important benchmark for the company to fulfill its goal to be fully powered by clean and renewable energy."

"Facebook has also pledged to push the utilities currently selling it dirty energy to move toward cleaner sources; that is the kind of leadership that IT companies will need to embrace in order to build a clean cloud," Greenpeace said in a release.

Facebook's announcement today is likely to be part of a growing drumbeat of green initiatives coming from the high-profile social media company. Weihl's arrival — the company's first sustainability executive — its newfound status as a public company, and its rapid growth has put increased pressure on the company to improve its environmental performance as well as increase its transparency. As with most data-intensive companies, energy use from data centers will continue to represent a significant share of its operating costs.

There are also signs the company will be leveraging its huge user base to develop and deploy services to help consumers reduce their energy use. Already, the company has partnered with Opower and NRDC to launch an application designed to empower people to consume energy more efficiently. Expect to see more such efforts, as the company sets out to leverage the "great opportunity in the power of our platform and the more than 950 million people who use Facebook" to address environmental challenges.