Facebook: Unfriend Coal

Facebook is rounding up the press for an announcement at its headquarters on Thursday. Vague on the details, the company has invited much speculation about what’s to come.

The invitation offers “a behind-the-scenes look at the latest technology powering Facebook,” which is an interesting word combination given the fast-approaching Earth Day deadline that Greenpeace has issued to the company to get it to stop “powering Facebook” with coal.

We are certainly hoping for the best, but even if (when) Facebook does not surprise us with bold and ambitious green leadership this week, our goals for the company remain unchanged. We are calling on Facebook to be a clean energy champion and announce a plan to go coal-free.

In fact, nearly 700,000 Facebook users have called on the company to choose clean, renewable energy to power its immense social network. Unfortunately, Facebook’s other big announcements of the year have related to plans to build two new data centers, which will rely heavily on electricity from dirty coal power.

Facebook has sought to deflect criticism over its reliance on coal powered electricity by highlighting the energy efficiency of its data center designs. Server efficiency and any attempt to reduce the energy footprint of its data centers are steps to be commended, though efficiency alone does not go far enough if Facebook is simply going to maximize output from the dirtiest energy source available, coal.

As the electricity demands of the IT sector rise, efficiency can only slow emission growth. In order to achieve the reductions necessary to keep the sector’s emissions in check and maintain safe levels of global greenhouse gases, clean energy needs to be the primary source of power for IT infrastructure. The replacement of dirty sources of electricity with clean renewable ones is still the crucial missing link in the sector’s sustainability efforts.

But in response to criticism from Greenpeace and the public over Facebook’s recent decisions to locate data centers in coal-dependent Prineville, Oregon, and Forest City, North Carolina, the company claims that it is simply stuck with whatever electricity is provided by the local power provider.

We think that’s an oversimplification. Some of Facebook’s peers have already begun to recognize that the sources of electricity used to build and power their platforms are as important as strong energy efficiency measures, and they are doing something about it.

Facebook too can take steps to mitigate its dirty energy impacts immediately. Here is what we would like hear Facebook announce on Thursday:

  1. Disclosure of Facebook’s energy and carbon footprint: Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is all about transparency, but when it comes to his company’s energy use and carbon emissions, he has a double standard. Facebook should follow the lead of IT peers, Wipro, IBM, Microsoft, and Cisco, and publicly report its overall energy consumption, facility level greenhouse gas emissions, and the percentage of renewable energy used in its operations. Public reporting bodies, such as the Carbon Disclosure Project, exist for this purpose.

  2. An Infrastructure Siting Policy: Facebook should adopt an investment and siting policy that factors in available renewable energy resources. Access to low-carbon renewable electricity is a long way down the list for many companies, but a growing number of them have adopted goals and investment policies designed to avoid investments tied to dirty sources. Yahoo!, for example, has adopted a goal to reduce the carbon intensity of its data centers 40% by 2014 by deploying high energy efficiency designs and locating its new facilities near renewable energy sources.

  3. Increase the supply of clean energy: Many IT companies have sought to increase the amount of clean energy supply through their local utility. In the best case scenario, this is done through power purchase agreements, which feed renewable energy directly onto the part of the grid (or ‘load center’) where it will be consumed by the company. Facebook should also consider making direct clean energy investments (in addition to those made at their own operational sites) instead of managing their energy and emissions footprint indirectly through the purchase of RECs or carbon offsets, both of which amount to ‘renting’ the environmental contributions of others. A number of IT companies have made investments in the direct installation of renewable energy to generate power for their own operational facilities.

  4. Clean energy advocacy: We need Facebook to work with Greenpeace and other corporate and public sector advocates to engage decision-makers in Oregon, North Carolina, and elsewhere, and push for policy changes that will rapidly move us off of coal and onto renewable energy. If Facebook and other cloud services want to provide a truly green Internet, they must use their power and influence, not to only drive investments near renewable energy sources, but also to help set the policies that will rapidly deploy renewable electricity economy-wide.

We hope to see Facebook announce that that it will go beyond energy efficiency and use its unprecedented global reach to lead the sector toward 100% renewable energy.

If you haven't yet, check out this television ad we aired in Palo Alto, CA, calling on Facebook to be a renewable energy leader: