What Facebook and Apple can teach other tech titans

Facebook
Seeking to transform the energy efficiency of global data centers, in April 2011 Facebook launched the Open Compute Project, an initiative to share the custom-engineered technology in its first dedicated data center in Prineville, Oregon.

This article is drawn from the Energy Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Thursdays.

Peeling back corporate declarations about 100 percent renewable energy is kind of like shucking a late-season ear of Jersey corn: removing the top layer of husk is pretty easy, but you never know what exactly you'll find as you pick away at the cob silk.

On the face of it, the press release outlining Facebook's move to set 2020 as the deadline for its all-in with renewables target seems pretty scant on details that haven't been disclosed before. But one sentence really sets this commitment apart: "All of these wind and solar projects are new and on the same grid as our data centers." 

Anyone who has spent any time studying corporate renewable energy strategies knows that's a pretty hard thing to pull off, especially at the scale of consumption that Facebook manages: It used 2.46 million megawatt-hours of electricity in 2017, the vast majority of which was related to its data centers. And as of last year, 51 percent of the power behind its servers and services was from renewable generating sources.

Often, Facebook takes a very active approach in helping that power get onto the grid. For example, the tech company was involved in shaping a green tariff adopted by the Omaha Public Power District in Nebraska last year. Other businesses and energy consumers in the city are poised to benefit from that evangelism.

The company spent months if not years thinking about the power infrastructure at its Eagle Mountain facility in Utah, which represents a $750 million investment. Among other things, it developed a renewable energy tariff in collaboration with Rocky Mountain Power (phase two involves helping the utility identify solar projects), and it is building a substation to link the data center with the Utah power grid. And Facebook spent considerably time working with the local community in Los Lunas, New Mexico, to make sure the local community there was also in lockstep with its renewable energy vision.

Obviously, other U.S.-based tech companies stand out as pioneers in renewable energy. I'd put Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple on that list. And yes, I am purposely leaving off IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Dell. Sorry, not sorry. 

One thing that all of these other tech titans could learn from Facebook and Apple (albeit for different reasons than the social media giant) is how to use your own renewable energy-buying clout to put clean solar and wind electricity in places that otherwise wouldn't have access to that power.

By making those considerations part of other business negotiations, both companies are helping scale the movement in ways other tech titans aren't really dreaming about yet. Access to renewable energy simply needs to become a more natural part of operational conversations — especially when it comes to building the infrastructure for the digital economy of the future. Don't let the fossil-fuels industry own that dialogue.