Photo Credit: Alan Brandt

The switch has been flipped on Facebook’s first owned and operated data center.  As of today, Prineville, Oregon, is home to millions of Facebook status updates, photos and videos. All that data is stored in a 300,000 square-foot facility that runs primarily on coal.

The electricity that Facebook uses to run its now-operational Prineville data center is provided by the local utility, Pacific Power. While Oregon’s energy mix is only 8% coal, Pacific Power imports power from other states. The utility’s supply mix is 62.97% coal, which means so is Facebook’s new data center.

On the plus side, Facebook has done some creative things in Prineville with regards to energy efficiency. The company has poured a lot of effort into reducing the power use of its servers and optimizing the data center’s design for energy savings. Facebook claims that these efforts will amount to 38% reduction in energy use, and it recently shared its techniques with the rest of the IT industry through the Open Compute Project.

Facebook's Open Commute Project's emphasis on energy efficiency, as well as transparency, provides an opportunity to be an open-source model not only for the transparent use of equipment and design of data centers, but also transparency in the disclosure of data centers' emissions and energy sources.

The company’s commitment to sustainability can’t stop there. We have not yet seen Facebook take seriously the source of energy used to power its infrastructure. Energy efficiency will reduce overall use, but in order to feed its growth sustainably, Facebook also needs to commit to the use of clean and renewable power.

Energy efficiency and energy source should not be treated as an “either/or” decision. But in regard to Prineville, and consistently in our public debate with the company over its reliance on coal-powered electricity, Facebook seems to believe that it can ignore which power it uses as long as it uses it more slowly. We cry foul on this false dichotomy.

Facebook has immediate options that it should pursue:

1.    Transparency and reporting: Facebook should disclose the energy sources and renewable energy percentage of its Prineville data center publicly and expand upon the  the transparency endeavors of the Open Compute Project to open source its emissions reporting as well.

2.    Increase renewable energy in Prineville: Through some combination of  direct on-site installation and investment in clean energy development (a la Google), Facebook should set a target to use more renewable energy to power its data center, and use its bulk purchasing power to work with Pacific Power on getting more renewable energy onto the grid.

3.    Policy Advocacy:  As part of an overall greater emphasis on climate policy advocacy, Facebook should push for strong policies and incentives in Oregon that increase the availability of renewable energy and ensure that its Prineville operations will be increasingly run on clean energy.

Longer term, Facebook needs to put forward a strong infrastructure siting policy that prioritizes access to renewable energy and establishes a comprehensive greenhouse gas mitigation strategy in addition to, not instead of, its energy efficiency measures.

Next week we will release a report called “How Dirty Is Your Data?” which examines the energy choices of Facebook and its IT peers. The report shows how other IT companies have made better choices than Facebook when it comes to renewable energy, and it would behoove Facebook to take some notes.

Google, for example, has invested twice in wind projects and also in a major solar project within the last year. These investments are explicitly part of Google’s strategy increase the supply of renewable energy on the grid, which helps to ensure that clean power will fuel the cloud as it grows.

Facebook has not released a renewable energy strategy for its new Prineville data center or any future infrastructure.  A Guinness World Record’s worth of 80,000 Facebook comments  have called upon the company to do so by Earth Day.  Stay tuned for more.