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Facebook Energy Plans Strikes Controversy with Greenpeace

April 22, 2010

Greenpeace was disgruntled to learn that Facebook chose Prineville, Ore. to make its first-ever data center an energy efficiency landmark. 

The environmental group praised Google and Yahoo for tapping hydropower, but challenged Facebook for building in coal country.

The social networking site chose the high-desert timber town of 10,000 to take advantage of its cool nights and dry air, which would make it cheaper to keep the computers cool.

This dispute shows how difficult it can be for the computing industry to meaningfully reduce its environmental footprint. However, Greenpeace says that IT companies should care more about where the power comes from.

Data centers are demanding more energy than ever as the nation works to become more environmentally friendly.  A 2007 Environmental Protection Agency report said that from 2000 to 2006, data centers doubled their consumption to 61 billion kilowatt hours. That is 1.5 percent of the grid — enough to power 5.8 million households.

“If you want to really be responsible for your carbon footprint, you should be trying to provision your electricity supply with renewable energy as much as possible,” said Greenpeace climate policy analyst Gary Cook.

Greenpeace created a special Facebook page with a smokestack logo that says the data center would be a greenhouse gas hog.

However, Ken Patchett, who was hired away from Google to run Facebook’s data center in Prineville, said the complex equation that goes into how much something costs still counts.

“At the end of the day, Facebook is like any other major competitive business,” he told My Way News. “We do have to manage to our bottom line.”

Facebook, Yahoo, Google and others have become fans of the Northwest as a place to build more warehouses filled with computers to store data. The area is close to undersea cables with direct links to growing markets in Asia. 

Facebook said the energy saving features brought by Prineville’s climate outweighed the source of the electricity, and that the utility PacifiCorp is greening up its power sources, expanding wind power to 2,000 megawatts by 2013.  It currently gets 58 percent of its power from coal, while only 21 percent is obtained from renewables.

PacifiCorp offers a green power option, but it costs more. Facebook has yet to sign a contract, and is not saying if it will go for the “Blue Sky” option.

Cooling the servers in most data centers takes about as much electricity as running the servers themselves. Facebook hopes its new cooling system will take only 15 percent as much power as the computers. The company also is hoping for a gold rating from the green building standard known as LEED.

The climate is important to the cooling process, and even the summer nights in this region are cool. 

“The way we are managing it provides for a lower carbon footprint as well as a lower monthly bill for power,” Patchett said.

Yahoo had a cool climate on top of its list when it chose Lockport, N.Y. as its landing spot for its servers. However, it also tapped local hydro generation for power.

It is building a patent-pending system known as the Yahoo Computing Coop that it hopes will beat Facebook’s efficiency by using only 10 percent for cooling as for running the servers. Louvered sidewalls allow wind to blow cool air into building, which are long and narrow to facilitate venting hot air through the roof.

“We are all working together to really nail down what does an efficient data center look like … so we can demonstrate leadership,” Christina Page, Yahoo director of climate and energy strategy, told the Associated Press.

She said that beyond changes in the mix of energy sources on the grid, the IT industry could reduce carbon emissions through the smart grid, smart buildings and more efficient heating and cooling.

Jone-Lin Wang, the managing director for IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said that it is not realistic. Renewables account for less than 4-percent of the grid.

She said that over the next 10 years, renewables would grow to only 7.5 percent of the grid, mostly because 30 states have adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards setting targets for growing renewable power.

Greg Lambert, owner of Mid Oregon Personnel Services, said that people are hungry for jobs in Prineville, and the 200 construction jobs and 35 permanent jobs at the data center are a step in the right direction.

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