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Facebook … unFriend unfriendly Coal

September 16th, 2010 · No Comments

We all have choices to make in life, some easier than others.

Perhaps to basic MBA penny-pinching, earning dollars off others’ lungs through ignoring coal pollution’s externalities, or a Corporate culture that remains ignorant of social costs, one of the most popular websites in the globe made the choice to poison all 500,000,000 of its “friends” by being a Friend to unfriendly and polluting Coal-fired electricity.

Facebook recently chose to operate its first data center, located in Prineville, Oregon, US, with energy from Pacific Power, a utility 60% fueled by coal. By the way, let’s not forget that Facebook isn’t exactly the smallest of data demands: this could well be the world’s largest data center (with a power demand in the range of 30-40,000 homes).  Now, Facebook defends their decision to use a coal-heavy mix (nearly 50% more coal than the national average) since their data center will be less energy demanding (more efficient) due to the climate:

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.

Really? To be honest, I’d like to see the calculations and the material showing just how aggressively they are ‘greening’ their IT within the walls of the data center.

In any event, energy issues can be thought of as  a three-legged stool:

  1. What we want.
  2. How we get it.
  3. The power sources supporting it.

Facebook is asserting that it is planning to meet [1] with a highly efficient [2] and therefore we should ignore [3].  Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.  We need to tackle all three, at all levels of the economy and society, to have any hope of navigating the Perfect Storm crisis of economic travails, peak oil, and mounting climate chaos.

And, it isn’t like data centers and computing are a small thing, irrelevant to questions of energy use and Global Warming. Let’s put this in perspective. According to one recent analysis, at current growth rates, data centers and telecommunication networks will consume about 1,963 billion kilowatts hours of electricity in 2020, more than triple their current consumption and over half the current electricity consumption of the United States — or more than France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined.

Now, to be clear, too many people are willing to exaggerate the role that IT plays in climate change when, in fact, the truth is that IT is contributing to reduced emissions in many ways and is a fall smaller problem than automobile emissions or destructive land use practices.  However, IT powered with clean energy is truly part of a solutions path compared the destruction created through powering our systems with dirtier than necessary electricity.

Well, Greenpeace has been mounting a campaign to call attention to Facebook‘s dirty coal friend.

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.”

With a documentary on Facebook’s founding about to come out, Greenpeace decided to provide a documentary of its own.   Even if I agree with Robin Wauters that some of it is perhaps of questionable taste (“What’s the point of making fun of [Zuckerberg] for being a “nerd”?”), take a few minutes to watch this; you won’t regret the time.

The basic point is true: Facebook (and Zukerberg) have a choice. They could choice to help drive clean power, purchasing wind electricity or otherwise working with Pacific Power to increase renewable power in utility’s mix.  Or, as they’ve down, they could hunker down and defend their position to buy polluting electricity. Let’s hope that they revisit that choice.

Action : Join the campaign to get Facebook to unfriend coal

PS: Now, there is another issue: Greenpeace’s servers aren’t very clean but Greenpeace is, with all the associated problems, buying offsets in recognition of its data servers carbon footprints.  Hint: Do you know where your computing electrons come from and their carbon/polluting footprint?

The script:

Once upon a time there was a school,
and at the school was a boy who was very clever
and his name was Mark Zuckerberg
and he wanted to have friends.

Mark Zuckerberg found the friends,
but they were inside
and he wasn’t.

So Mark invented Facebook
which invented lots of friends for him
and everyone said ‘hooray!’
Then they all wanted his money,
but he had 500 million friends on Facebook,
so no-one could bully him.
Facebook lives in a big box full of computers,
and all the Facebook pictures
and words and faces
are kept inside it
and the box is in Oregon

Facebook in the box eats a lot of special food called electricity.
A good way of making electricity is by letting cheeky clouds with lips
blow windmills round and round
but silly Mark Zuckerberg chose dirty old coal.

Coal is made from rotten dinosaur food
and when you burn it
it dirties the air
which makes our world
grow hotter
and meltier
and floodier.

But Mark Zuckerberg can still change his mind
and I know which one I would choose
and so do all his friends.
If you let your friends down,
you let yourself down.
And with 500 million friends it’s a long way down

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Tags: coal · Energy