Social networking website Facebook is coming under unprecedented pressure from its users to switch to renewable energy. In one of the web's fastest-growing environmental campaigns, Greenpeace international says at least 500,000 people have now protested at the organisation's intention to run its giant new data centre mainly on electricity produced by burning coal power.
Facebook will not say how much electricity it uses to stream video, store information and connect its 500m users but industry estimates suggest that at their present rate of growth all the data centres and telecommunication networks in the world will consume about 1,963bn kilowatt hours of electricity by 2020. That is more than triple their current consumption and more electricity than is used by France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined.
Facebook announced in February that it planned to build what is expected to be the world's largest centralised data storage centres in Portland, Oregon. Although it will include some of the world's most energy-efficient computers, the sheer scale of the Facebook operation will almost certainly use more electricity than many developing countries.
The company has said it will source its electricity from Pacific Power. It uses coal power – the dirtiest form of power generation – for 67% of its electricity, and produces less than 12% of its electricity from renewable sources. The company has said it plans to generate more electricity from renewables in future but has given no detailed information.
In a statement Facebook said: "It is true that the local utility for the region we chose, Pacific Power, has an energy mix that is weighted slightly more toward coal than the national average. However, the efficiency we are able to achieve because of the climate of the region and the reduced energy usage that results minimises our overall carbon footprint.
"Said differently, if we located the data centre most other places, we would need mechanical chillers, use more energy, and be responsible for more overall carbon in the air – even if that location was fuelled by more renewable energy."
Kumi Naidoo, director of Greenpeace International, urged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to commit his company to a plan to phase out the use of dirty coal-fired electricity. In a letter to Facebook, Naidoo said: "Facebook is uniquely positioned to be a truly visible and influential leader to drive the deployment of clean energy."
Earlier this year Greenpeace admitted that many of its own web hosting operations are also housed in data centres powered primarily by coal and nuclear power. The environmental group said it offset all the energy used to power its main website in Amsterdam and used renewable energy where it could. Many of its servers in Washington also used wind power.
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