Has Facebook finally caved to Greenpeace's demands?
The social network giant has for the past 18 months been embroiled in an ongoing battle with environmental activists over Facebook's data center expansion plans. Greenpeace wants Facebook to adopt 100 percent renewable energy for its facilities, in part as a way to signal to the larger IT industry -- and Facebook's half-billion users -- that renewable power is a force to be reckoned with.
Facebook has so far countered primarily that it's going above and beyond the norm for energy efficiency, building two new data centers with industry-leading energy efficiency metrics. At the same time, there's long been doubt in IT circles that fully relying on renewable energy is not yet feasible for data centers of Facebook's size and specifications.
That story continues to evolve today, as Facebook officially announces that it is building a green data center in Sweden, just south of the Arctic Circle, that will be powered almost entirely by hydroelectric power, and cooled by outside air.
The data center will be built in Luleå, Sweden, 100 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle. It will take up 90,000 square meters (968,000 square feet) and use $72 million worth of energy per year, about the equivalent of 16,000 single-family homes, according to Swedish newspaper The Local.
But siting the data center near the Arctic Circle gives Facebook the win-win-win situation of getting free cooling, cheap green energy and minimizing the carbon footprint of a massive computing center.
In an article in the Telegraph, Mats Engman, chief executive of the Aurorum Science Park, where the data center will be built, explained the free cooling benefits of locating in Luleå:
"If you take the statistics, the temperature has not been above 30C [86F] for more than 24 hours since 1961. If you take the average temperature, it's around 2C [35.6F]," Engman said. Temperatures at those levels make it easy to run data centers at temperatures at least as high as the latest ASHRAE standards for data centers, which call for operating temperatures of 27C or 80F.
On the green energy front, Facebook isn't breaking any new ground with its Swedish facility. Using hydroelectricity to power a data center is nothing new -- it's the most conventional form of renewables for data centers, and one that many of the big web players have long since put to work in Washington state and Oregon.
While there are many data centers that use at least some renewables to keep the servers on, there's only one I know of that has gotten 100 percent off the grid: the National Renewable Energy Lab's net-zero headquarters and data center in Colorado. But going the hydroelectric route is a step in the right direction for green data centers, and it gives Facebook access to cheap, abundant and low-carbon electricity.
And will the Luleå site get Greenpeace off of Facebook's back? Not quite. Although an analyst with the group called the data center a "great step forward for Facebook" in a statement today, Greenpeace is still pushing Facebook to adopt its three-pronged green data center strategy:
- State a public preference for siting its new data center infrastructure in locations where they can be significantly powered by clean renewable energy. This will send an important signal to IT companies and electricity providers that want to compete for future Facebook business.
- While Facebook has demonstrated significant leadership in breaking down the secrecy culture among data center operators, sharing energy-efficient data center designs through the Open Compute Project, a similar transparent approach must be taken with regard to its total energy footprint, as was recently embraced by Google.
- As a large contract purchaser of electricity, Facebook should use this leverage to advocate for a significant shift in investment with the utilities already has contracts, Duke Energy in North Carolina and Pacific Power in Oregon, which both rely heavily on coal.
Luleå photo CC-licensed by Let Ideas Compete.