Greenpeace Plays Dirty In Attack On Facebook Over Coal

Greenpeace has stepped up its campaign against Facebook for “choosing” coal to power its first wholly owned data center. The environmental organization has released an animated YouTube video branding Facebook as the “So Coal Network” and lambasting founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

This comes on top of Greenpeace’s previous protests against the data center, including a Facebook page in several languages. Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo has also written an open letter to Zuckerberg. The letter calls on Facebook to commit to a plan to phase out the use of dirty coal-fired electricity to power its data centers and to use its purchasing power to choose locations that allow you to rely on only clean, renewable sources of electricity, and also to disclose the company’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

I don’t believe the video is entirely fair. It singles out Zuckerberg for being a “nerd” and implies he started Facebook just so he could make some friends. I don’t see how that helps Greenpeace make its argument – it’s attacking the person rather than the issue and it’s rather mean-spirited.

It’s also not quite true that Facebook has “chosen” coal. As the company points out, it’s simply taking the available electricity in its chosen location of Prineville, Oregon. The data center will take its electricity from PacifiCorp, which generates power from hydro, geothermal, wind and coal. So if it’s a choice then it’s a passive one. However, the question is whether Facebook could be doing more, as an industrial-scale buyer of electricity? Greenpeace argues that it should.

There is an interesting exchange under Naidoo’s letter, with Barry Schnitt, Facebook’s director of policy communication, defending the company and Greenpeace policy analyst Gary Cook calling on Facebook to do more.

Schnitt points out that the building has been designed with a natural cooling system designed for the climate in Prineville, which is unusually dry and temperate. As we’ve previously reported, the systems in place include an evaporative cooling system that uses less energy that traditional chiller systems, an airside economizer that will bring in colder air from outside for about two thirds of the year, and the reuse of server heat in the cooler months.

On the other hand, while the video itself may be over-simplified, It’s hard to argue with that – Facebook is doing more than some companies but is it enough, given the crisis the world faces in terms of air pollution and climate change?

Barry Schnitt, director of policy communication at Facebook, responded to Naidoo’s letter in the comments section. He said that all data centers relied on pointed out that Greenpeace faced many of the same challenges with its data centers in Virginia. He said:

“It’s true that the local utility for the region we chose, Pacific Power, has an energy mix that is weighted slightly more toward coal than the national average (58% vs. about 50%). However, the efficiency we are able to achieve because of the climate of the region minimizes our overall carbon footprint. Said differently, if we located the data center most other places, we would need mechanical chillers, use more energy, and be responsible for an overall larger environmental impact – even if that location was fueled by more renewable energy.”

Greenpeace’s Cook responded:

“Facebook is buying electricity in bulk to meet the needs of 500 million+ users, and is becoming a very influential company both inside and outside the IT sector. The expected power consumption of the Oregon data center alone gives Facebook the purchasing power of 30,000-40,000 homes, which gives you the ability and standing to shape how power is generated in Oregon and far beyond. Ultimately, we need Facebook to work with Greenpeace and others in Oregon and elsewhere to push for the policy changes that will rapidly move us off of coal and toward renewable sources of energy.”

So who is correct? As I said, I don’t the video was fair and I do give Facebook for its energy-efficient building design. However, I also think the points that Naidoo and Cook make are also quite valid. Facebook does have the opportunity to use its purchasing power to do more and could certainly leverage its influence to change Oregonian power supply, while protecting its investment in jobs in an under-developed region.

Contrary to what some would have you believe, there is scientific consensus about the fact that the world is facing an immense crisis of human-caused climate change and air pollution. (The so-called “Climategate” incident last year was simply climate-denial propaganda nicely timed to derail the Copenhagen climate talks. In fact, three independent inquiries have cleared the scientists of any wrongdoing). Facebook has made some efforts to mitigate its own impact but given the scale of the problem and the company’s special opportunity – with an annual data center bill of $50m – to create change, it’s not unreasonable to ask it to do a bit more.

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