Facebook's Coal Problem and the Greening of the Cloud

Facebook's Coal Problem and the Greening of the Cloud

You've heard about the cloud, right? This blog comes to you from the cloud. The cloud is where the bank keeps your money. YouTube, Gmail, Twitter and iTunes live in the cloud. So does a record of all my runs in 2011. The cloud, in essence, is the millions of data centers where information and software are stored and can be accessed by gazillions of computers.

Unfortunately, the cloud is creating problems for the planet.

facebook campaignWhich bring us to Facebook and its coal problem. By some accounts, Facebook is the world's most visited website. Greenpeace, as a result, has made Facebook the target of a campaign called Unfriend Coal, which has its own Facebook pages (of course!) with more than 700,000 fans. Facebook recently opened a big new data center in Prineville, Oregon, where electricity is generated mostly from burning coal. Greenpeace is asking the social media giant to power its services with renewable energy instead of coal and nuclear power.

In response, Facebook -- like the rest of the IT industry -- mostly talks about efficiency. The Prineville data center is super efficient, by all accounts. What's more, to its credit, Facebook is sharing much of what it has learned about making data centers more efficient in its Open Compute project.

The trouble is, efficiency is a necessary, but insufficient response to the threat of climate change.

Or as Daniel Kessler, a Greenpeace campaigner, told me: "It's solving for half the equation."

Here's why: The cloud is growing fast. In a tweet after New Year's Day, Facebook said that people uploaded "a record 750 million photos" over the weekend. YouTube says that 24 hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute. I've got 7.3 gigabytes of email stored in my Gmail account, enough so that I recently had to write a small check to Google.

There's no way that efficiency can offset the impact of all that growth. Indeed, all these companies are rapidly building big new data centers.

In a study on the Internet's growth released last month, Greenpeace estimated that data centers currently consume 1.5-2% of all global electricity and are growing at a rate of 12% per year. The report is available for download here.

Gary Cook, Greenpeace IT Policy Analyst, is quoted as saying:

We think consumers want to know that when they upload a video or change their Facebook status that they are not contributing to toxic coal ash, global warming or future Fukishima's.

Green IT should not be a choice between energy efficiency and clean electricity -- companies need to give equal attention to both for green data centers.

This is an important point, relevant to all of the tech companies (IBM, HP, Google, Yahoo!, etc) that like to talk about how they are making their data centers more efficient. They need to think, not just about how much energy they are using, but what kind of energy, to minimize their carbon emissions. HP Labs, for example, has designed a cow-powered data center, which could be powered using waste from dairy farms, but it has yet to build one.

Instead, as Greenpeace notes, Google, Apple and Facebook are operating, building or expanding their data centers in North Carolina, where cheap and dirty coal-powered electricity is abundant and where tax breaks were made available by the state government. This make sense for their businesses, but no matter how efficient those data centers are, they are adding greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.

The Greenpeace report offered some praise to Yahoo!, which has sited data centers near sources of renewable energy, and Google, which has invested in wind, solar and geothermal power. Google has made two major power purchase agreements for wind energy with Next Era, as Todd Woody reports in Grist.

By contrast, Facebook gets about 53% of its electricity from coal, Greenpeace estimates, slightly more than the national average.

Now, this is a complicated issue, to be sure. Posting photos on Facebook is "greener" than printing them out and sharing them with friends, and email has a lower carbon footprint, safe to say, that letters sent via the postal service.

More important, the power of information technology is crucial to addressing energy and climate issues, whether we're talking about the smart grid, smart buildings, electric cars, managing traffic congestion, finding parking places, or organizing climate activists.

But if companies like Facebook want to be part of the energy/climate solution, and not part of the problem, they need to find ways to stop burning dirty coal -- sooner rather than later.

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[Disclosure: I was paid by Hewlett Packard to moderate two events on energy-efficient data centers.]