Facebook reported that overall, for the year of 2011, it produced about 285,000 metric tons of carbon emissions, or 269 grams per each of Facebook’s users (now up to 955 million globally).
“To put this number into context, one person’s Facebook use for all of 2011 had roughly the same carbon footprint as one medium latte,” Facebook wrote in its report. “Or three large bananas. Or a couple of glasses of wine.”
But Facebook isn’t toasting to its clean energy success quite yet. Although the company reported that 23 percent of the energy it used in 2011 came from renewable sources — solar, wind, etc. — it said that it hoped to improve on that figure to get to 25 percent renewable energy usage by 2015.
While that additional two percent doesn’t seem like much given how close Facebook already is to its goal, it will actually be a steep challenge for the company, as both Facebook and Greenpeace acknowledged publicly and in correspondence with TPM.
That’s because Facebook is in the process of transitioning from storing its data and the data of its nearly 1 billion users from leased data centers to new data centers that Facebook has built and will own. The first two of these data centers are located in Prineville, Oregon and Forest City, North Carolina, and unfortunately for Facebook’s green ambitions, and the environment itself, the power companies that will be providing electricity to Facebook’s data centers in those locations rely heavily on old, dirty, nonrenewable fossil fuels.
“The reality is that as a fast-growing company our carbon footprint and energy mix may get worse before they get better,” Facebook wrote in its 2011 carbon report.
Facebook sources also confirmed to TPM that the main reason for the challenge was Facebook’s move to the new company-owned data centers in these coal-heavy locations. This despite the fact that Facebook worked to make both data centers as energy-efficient as possible, reporting a 38 percent gain over comparable industry data centers.
“This is a big lesson to other cloud-based and Internet companies,” said Greenpeace media officer David Pomerantz, in a phone interview with TPM. “Be careful where you put these data centers. If you have a longterm interest in sustainability, it’s much harder to fulfill that once you’ve already built something where the energy comes from fossil sources.”
Despite Facebook’s self-imposed setbacks in its renewable energy goals, Greenpeace is broadly supportive of the company, even agreeing to a partnership between the two back in December 2011 to support the Open Compute Project, an effort launched by Facebook to “spark a collaborative dialogue” with other server architects online on how to make data centers as energy efficient as can be.
Facebook is also building a new data center in Sweden that will be powered mostly by renewable energy.
Further, Greenpeace told TPM that it thinks of Facebook as a leader in the technology sector when it comes to reducing carbon footprints and increasing transparency about where it gets its energy.
“It’s an important step to be transparent,” Pomerantz told TPM. “In effect, Facebook is saying they want people to hold them accountable to their goals.”
Pomerantz said Greenpeace also had a high opinion of Google, which also previously published figures on its overall annual carbon emissions (1.46 million metric tons) and carbon emissions per user (1.46 kilograms of carbon dioxide per user per year, for Google’s total 1 billion estimated users).
By contrast, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple are all less transparent about their energy usage and sustainability efforts, according to Pomerantz.
“Amazon has released less than a shred of information about its data center usage,” Pomerantz told TPM. “They’re a black box, they won’t say anything about how much energy their data centers use and what kinds.”
Pomerantz said that consumers looking for companies committed to reducing carbon footprints should be suspicious of Microsoft, too, which in May claimed that it would be entirely “carbon neutral” as of June this year. Pomerantz pointed that while this may be technically true in the sense that Microsoft is offsetting as much carbon as it releases into the environment annually, some of the means by which Microsoft is going about this goal — through purchasing carbon offsets and renewable energy credits — aren’t actually reducing any of the carbon the company is responsible for emitting.
As such, Greenpeace thinks that Facebook’s goal of being 25 percent powered by renewables by 2015 — a goal which again, both Greenpeace and Facebook say will be tough if not impossible to achieve given Facebook’s data center locations — is actually better than Microsoft’s (and Google’s) claims of carbon neutrality.
That said, Pomerantz was encouraged to see major companies that compete for consumers when it comes to consumer gadgets and internet services now engaging in competition over who could be the cleanest and greenest.
“I think that there is a competition that’s just beginning within the tech sector to see which companies are going to be the leaders of the clean energy economy,” Pomerantz said. “It’s very positive because the technology sector is made up of some of the wealthiest and most influential companies in the world. The smartest companies are the ones trying to win that clean energy race, because its good for their reputation and their business — in the sense that in the longterm, we expect clean energy to be cheaper and more stable than fossil fuels.”
There may also be opportunity for collaboration on the part of tech rivals Facebook, Google and Apple when it comes to improving their individual carbon footprints and the overall environmental impact of the cloud-based tech sector: All three companies have massive data centers in the state of North Carolina that derive electricity from primarily-fossil fuel-using power company Duke Energy. Pomerantz said that if all three were to push Duke to switch more of its power generation over to renewable sources, the company would probably do so.
“The three of them [Facebook, Google and Apple] are really important customers for Duke,” Pomerantz said. “If three of them did coordinated that would credibly impactful.”