Facebook gets specific about its 100 percent renewables target

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The Facebook data center in Prineville, Oregon, requires 52 percent less energy to operate than a comparable facility built to code requirements and is LEED Gold Certified.

Seven years after it formally declared its intention to power its operations entirely with renewable energy, Facebook this week set a date to deliver that commitment just two short years from now.

The declaration, accompanied by a new vow to reduce greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 75 percent, comes on the heels of the social media giant’s revelation that 51 percent of its electricity needs are serviced by clean power, much of it sourced close to its far-flung data center network.

It took Facebook about two years to achieve that goal (quicker than anticipated), which was adopted after reaching the 25-percent mark. According to the company’s latest sustainability metrics (PDF), its operations consumed 2.46 million megawatt-hours of electricity in 2017, the vast majority of which were related to its data centers.

Facebook has procured more than 3 gigawatts of electricity from solar and wind plants since 2013, including more than 2,500 megawatts within the past year. It is second only to Google in the sheer scale of its purchases, based on data collected by the Rocky Mountain Institute Business Renewables Center. What’s more, the social media giant is behind the biggest single set of corporate power purchase agreements (PPAs) announced so far in 2018, a series of six solar projects that will generate 437 MW of electricity from two projects near its data center in Prineville, Oregon, and four installations planned by PacifiCorp in Utah. (Cumulatively speaking, AT&T was behind the most deals this year, with 820 MW across several virtual PPAs.)

"Facebook has shown just what companies can achieve when they show ambition and leadership in tackling climate change. Samsung Electronics, one of the most recent companies to adopt 100 percent renewable commitments, would be well-served to follow Facebook's example," said Gary Cook, senior corporate campaigner for Greenpeace, who tracks tech industry commitments.

One hallmark of Facebook’s strategy: It prioritizes PPAs and clean power procurement contracts that can have a direct or local impact on its operations.

"We are proud of the impact our renewable energy program is having on local communities and the market in general," the company wrote in its announcement. "All of these wind and solar projects are new and on the same grid as our data centers. That means that each of these projects brings jobs, investment and a healthier environment to the communities that host us — from Prineville, Oregon, and Los Lunas, New Mexico, to Henrico, Virginia, and Luleå, Sweden."

Like many of the other large technology companies, Facebook became vocal about the power behind its servers and services in 2011 after Greenpeace launched a highly public campaign pointing out that many of the world’s largest data centers were in states or regions that relied heavily on coal power plants. So, while the likes of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft already were heavily engaged in improving the energy efficiency of their operations, they weren’t doing much at the time to influence the power sources they plugged into.

Facebook was the first one of this bunch to step forward with a 100 percent renewable pledge, although it didn’t set a deadline. It helped inspired the RE100 Initiative, companies that have pledged to run their operations entirely on renewable electricity. So far, Apple and Google have reached that milestone among the tech titans: through a mixture of investments that help them offset their actual power consumption through various renewable purchasing mechanisms including on-site installations, PPAs, and direct purchases in regulated markets through green tariffs.

Google’s senior vice president of technical infrastructure, Urs Holzle, offered this explanation when the search giant made its 100 percent declaration in April. As of that time, Google had cumulatively procured about 3 GW of renewable energy in the United States, Europe and Mexico. Not all of those projects are necessarily near its operations.

"We say that we ‘matched’ our energy usage because it’s not yet possible to ‘power’ a company of our scale by 100 percent renewable energy," Holzle noted. "It’s true that for every kilowatt-hour of energy we consume, we add a matching kilowatt-hour of renewable energy to a power grid somewhere. But that renewable energy may be produced in a different place, or at a different time, from where we’re running our data centers and offices. What’s important to us is that we are adding new clean energy sources to the electrical system, and that we’re buying that renewable energy in the same amount as what we’re consuming, globally and on an annual basis."

That makes Facebook’s mission to procure local all the more notable.

The company has invested considerable energy, so to speak, in negotiating with utilities. For example, the company was involved in shaping a tariff adopted by the Omaha Public Power District in Nebraska last year.

And Facebook spent months negotiating the arrangements for the power infrastructure at its Eagle Mountain facility in Utah, which represents a $750 million investment for the company. Among other things, it developed a renewable energy tariff in collaboration with Rocky Mountain Power to create a renewable electricity supply (it’s working to identify solar projects), and it is building a substation to link the data center with the Utah power grid.