Over the past month in the blogosphere we’ve seen increasing attention paid to our popular campaign for Facebook to choose renewables not coal, and the coverage has become quite a game of “he said, she said”.

The onslaught of commentary ignited when our Executive Director sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg on September 1st, asking him to demonstrate bolder climate leadership. It blazed ever brighter after Facebook responded to Kumi’s demands on our Cool IT blog. And, finally, it flared up again after the release of our “So Coal Network” video spoof, which reinforced the assertion that Facebook should make a choice to run its data servers on clean, renewable energy instead of coal.

Bloggers have followed the back-and-forth as though they are spectating at a tennis match, waiting for us or Facebook to take the next swing, buzzing when one side delivers.

But the effect of having placed so much emphasis on the volley itself is that the coverage seems to be losing some key points of the discussion.

Here’s a quick recap of what’s at stake along with some supporting media perspectives that have been published since we sent Facebook the letter:

1. While energy efficiency is highly important in helping a company mitigate its energy consumption, as long as that company continues to grow, so will its absolute greenhouse gas emissions, UNLESS policies are put in place to ensure that the company’s source of energy is clean and renewable.

In other words, a highly efficient data center powered by coal destroys the planet, it just does so a more slowly than one lacking in state-of-the-art efficiencies.

Here are some numbers from the International Trade Administration illuminating IT’s tremendous growth:

Information and communications technology (ICT) has become a significant source of energy consumption.  ICT equipment now makes up about 5.3 percent of global electricity use and more than 9 percent of total U.S. electricity demand.  The International Energy Agency (a unit of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris) predicts that the energy consumed by ICT worldwide will double by 2022 and increase three-fold by 2030 to 1,700 tera (trillion) watt hours.  This will equal the current combined residential electricity use of the United States and Japan and will require the addition of nearly 280 giga (billion) watts of new generating capacity over the next twenty years, presenting a great challenge to electric utilities throughout the world.

Grist’s review of our “The So Coal Network” video reiterates its own blogger’s (David Roberts) previously stated opinion on this issue:

Facebook deserves some credit for locating its server farm in a temperate climate that requires less heating and cooling energy than other spots. But he applauded Greenpeace's campaign because it reinforces that using coal should be socially unacceptable. It's not something decent people should do. At least when they have a choice, as Zuckerberg does.

ZDNet’s GreenTech blog agrees:

Certainly, I have heard very little about Facebook’s green IT agenda. If the company wants to be taken seriously, it definitely needs to address this issue — either by disproving Greenpeace’s core argument or by working with its data center power company to address the issue of clean generating capacity.

And we echo Matthew Wheeland’s summarization on GreenBiz.com:

So will this movie make a difference in Facebook's power plans? That obviously remains to be seen. But it does call to light the fact that companies will need to start taking seriously where their power comes from -- whether for data centers or not.

2.  Facebook should demonstrate bold leadership by aggressively and proactively working to ensure that the company is able to meet its growing electricity needs with renewable power as other tech competitors have done.

CNET blogger Martin LaMonica cautions:

Google has gone to great lengths to buy wind energy by setting up a Google Energy subsidiary and investing in a wind farm. But ultimately, even a giant power consumer like Google or Facebook draws the available electricity from the grid, which is a mix of sources. (See latest Energy Information Administration data here.)

Of course, these tech companies could lobby more on clean energy policy, as Greenpeace says, but energy policy moves slowly in the U.S. If they are trying to lighten their energy footprint, the most immediate and effective option for Facebook and its ilk is efficiency.

Agreed, on both counts. Energy efficiency is a must, but the tech companies have the political clout, as well as an environmental obligation, to advocate for policies that increase the availability of renewable grid energy or purchase it directly.

Which is why we’d like to see Facebook move beyond the statement that it has no alternative. And so would Treehugger’s Stephen Messenger:

Facebook's director of policy communications, Barry Schmidt, has issued a response to Greenpeace's call to 'unfriend' coal, stating that there is no other alternative to coal in the location selected to build the data center. "It is simply untrue to say that we chose coal as a source of power. The suggestions of 'choosing coal' ignores the fact that there is no such thing as a coal-powered data center," says Schmidt -- which certainly isn't the attitude one might expect from one of the Internet's most pioneering Web sites.


Gizmodo blogger, Sam Biddle clears his own conscience:

Greenpeace points out the efforts IT giants like Google and Yahoo are putting forth to increase their juice efficiency—which is certainly something we'd like to see from Facebook too. Ogling photos of girls I went to middle school with is guilt-spurring enough—the last thing I need on my conscience is a heavier carbon footprint.

Or, most concisely, as the Green (low carbon) Data Center Blog puts it: “Maybe Facebook should have had a green data center strategy beyond being efficient? duh.”

Well put.