At current rates, the reigning king of social networks, Facebook, will consume roughly 2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity by 2020 -- more electricity than is used by France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined. But the fact that Facebook's growth will be made on the back of burning pulverized coal, the cheapest and dirtiest source of energy around, has environmental groups crying foul.
The campaign urging Facebook to 'unfriend coal' has now grown to more than half a million Facebook users strong. And in addition to employing straight ahead techno-rational arguments, the campaign is using humor. In a new video from Greenpeace, supporters poke a bit of fun at CEO Zuckerberg and his relationship with coal (see video below).
In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier this month, Kumi Naidoo, director of Greenpeace International, urged Facebook to say no to coal and commit to a plan to phase out the use of dirty coal-fired electricity. In particular, Greenpeace and Naidoo are taking aim at Facebook for their plan to power their new server farm in Oregon with an energy mix of nearly two-thirds coal, well above the national average. Wrote Naidoo, "Facebook is uniquely positioned to be a truly visible and influential leader to drive the deployment of clean energy."
Thus far, however, Facebook has responded to the pressure by arguing that because of where they are locating the new server facility--in the temperate Pacific Northwest--they will require less energy to keep the servers running cool and efficiently.
Facebook director of policy communications Barry Schmitt recently responded to Greenpeace:
"...the efficiency we are able to achieve because of the climate of the region minimizes our overall carbon footprint. Said differently, if we located the data center most other places, we would need mechanical chillers, use more energy, and be responsible for an overall larger environmental impact..."
But one must wonder why, if Facebook is locating their new server facility in an area of the U.S. with access to cheap and abundant hydroelectricity, why they are opting to build it in an area served by utility that favors the heavy use of coal. If Facebook really wanted to capitalize on the favorable climate of the region to run their servers cleaner and more efficiently, it seems they could parlay that advantage by choosing cleaner sources of electricity to do so.
Facebook's Schmitt goes on to explain that they are not "choosing" coal over hydroelectricity, but rather that they are hamstrung by the utility's individual electricity mix. Using this argument, Facebook is completely missing the point. When you are a multi-billion dollar company building any new facility that requires the equivalent electricity used by 30,000-40,000 homes, you have the purchasing power to force the hand of utilities. You have the ability to get utilities to do things for you. This is the point that Greenpeace is making. And this is the point that Facebook is either ignoring or shying away from.
If Facebook believes that locating their new data center in a cool, dry climate, is the single best way to "lessen" their environmental footprint, why didn't they opt to build it in, say, North Dakota?
I have a feeling the answer may have to do with having enough hipster coffee shops per capita.