Green Facebook - Time to End the Friendship with Coal?

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Coal-fired electricity is still the cheapest form of electricity around, that is, if you don't count the environmental and social costs of emitting large amounts of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury into our air and water.

The right mix of cheap electricity, cheap labor, and proximity to raw materials and transportation arteries were key to determining the landscape of economic development in this country for the better part of a century. Yet as this country drifts away from a manufacturing-centered economy towards an information-centered one, with more data centers being built than manufacturing plants, the practice of locating energy-intensive businesses near cheap electricity remains.

Back in February when Facebook announced plans to build a new data center in Oregon that would employ the latest in green data center technologies but also be powered by a utility that heavily favors coal, it kicked off a bit of a firestorm in the green community. Eventually, Greenpeace took up the cause and launched a campaign urging Facebook to unfriend coal.

fbook So when news broke recently about Facebook's plans to build another massive data center -- this one in coal-heavy North Carolina -- Facebook was already braced for the pushback with a new green strategy of their own, a recently launched page called Green on Facebook.

The page, born on October 20, is intended to highlight the company's sustainability efforts, like their energy efficient computing and their partnerships with non-profits. "One of our core values at Facebook is the responsibility to do everything we can to reduce our environmental impact on the planet," the pages info section reads.

While Facebook doesn't take on Greenpeace -- or coal-- directly, they engage the issue indirectly by proactively launching a campaign of their own, one that touts their partnerships, advancements in data center cooling strategies, and breakthroughs in computing efficiency, diverting attention away from Greenpeace and the coal issue altogether.

In September, Facebook director of policy communications Barry Schmitt did address the Greenpeace campaign directly. In response to the criticism for the Oregon data center, Schmitt commented on Greenpeace's blog: "...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..."

Most other places would require mechanical chillers? Like North Carolina, for example?

Look, I get that internet companies need data centers, especially companies the size of Facebook. And I get that making data centers more efficient is a huge part of making the whole internet undertaking a little less taxing on the planet. For those efforts, I commend Facebook.

But green data centers should be the norm, not the exception. And really, if the greenest data center in the world was powered mostly by coal, would it still be green?

Am I being unfair for singling out Facebook? Perhaps. But I pick on Facebook for the same reason Greenpeace does:  with 500 million users speaking 70 different languages, Facebook, and its massive social platform is uniquely situated to be the global leader at the nexus of clean energy and internet computing.

I pick on Facebook because instead of shying away from the energy challenge, the company could be facing it head on by making aggressive investments in renewable energy, much like Google has done.

I don't just pick on Facebook because it's Facebook. I pick on Facebook because after seeing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg give $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey public school system, I know the company both wants to be and has the capacity to be a force for social good.

I pick on Facebook because I know they're up to the challenge.

Tim Hurst is the executive editor of the LiveOAK network where he writes the business and politics of energy and the environment. Follow him on twitter.

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  • Posted on Nov. 19, 2010. Listed in:

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