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Can Big Tech Go Green? How Facebook, Apple and Google Stack Up

Most are aware of Facebook's privacy assaults, but few know of the company's reluctance to embrace green energy, a challenge Apple has readily accepted.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Frank Gaertner/ Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

As Facebook's first public offering on May 18 failed to meet expectations, causing a number of stock market analysts to predict the social network's ultimate demise, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was no doubt giggling in greed-filled joy. He even topped off his celebratory weekend by tying the knot with his longtime sweetheart.

Facebook's public sale was more a whimper than a bang, despite being the largest of its kind ever. Coincidentally, the buildup to this history-making event would have been an opportune time to wage a public campaign against the company's suspect practices. While most are aware of Facebook's privacy assaults, less scrutinized is the company's reluctance to embrace green energy, a challenge Apple has readily accepted for its data storage centers.

In January 2010 Facebook announced it was going to build a 147,000-square-foot data center in the town of Prineville, Oregon for a whooping $200 million. It is the first Facebook-owned data facility, and houses Facebook's servers. The majority of the power for the center was set up to be purchased from PacifiCorp, which draws the lion's share of its energy from the burning of coal. The entire campus will eventually consume about 78 megawatts of electricity to support its operations.

Greenpeace, known for its feisty environmental campaigns, was the first to heave criticism on Facebook for failing to go green. "Facebook, by opening this center, is sending a signal: We're not quite done with coal yet," said Daniel Kessler of Greenpeace. "We understand that the data center is being built. They already have a power service agreement. This is really about where Facebook and the industry are going."

In September 2010 Greenpeace released a humorous cartoon video targeteing Zuckerberg and company, laying into Facebook's choice of power for its Oregon data center. The video claimed Facebook had the option to choose wind power, but "silly Mark Zuckerberg chose dirty old coal" instead. Wind power in eastern Oregon is plentiful and Greenpeace believed it was entirely possible for Facebook to tap into this renewable resource -- or set up a wind farm of its own nearby.

Simultaneously Greenpeace launched a successful "Unfriend Coal" campaign against Facebook, asking the social network giant to use 100-percent renewable energy.

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No doubt Facebook was feeling the heat. The Greenpeace video lambasting Zuckerberg received a half a million views and tens of thousands of users joined the group's Unfriend Coal campaign. In April 2011 Facebook said the company would install a solar array at its Oregon facility, which would make the data center one of only a few in the world to receive any power from solar energy. Nonetheless, Facebook's solar panels are only set to generate a meager 100 kilowatts of energy, a small fraction of the center's 78-megawatt consumption.

Greenpeace called Facebook's solar move "encouraging," but still not enough. Yet, in December of last year Greenpeace announced it was dropping the campaign, saying Zuckerberg's company and the enviro group would work together to encourage the use of renewables over coal.

It was an odd announcement to say the least. Greenpeace claimed victory, but for what exactly wasn't clear. Facebook was still going to use coal for its data center and in Greenpeace's public agreement with Facebook, there were no timetables given and no goals listed for how or when it would reduce the amount of dirty energy it used. The only thing Facebook said was it will have a "preference for access to clean and renewable energy supply."

A preference is not a commitment.

Greenpeace, however, said it also hatched a private agreement with Facebook as well -- one its members were not allowed to see.

"We would have certainly preferred to have more specific timetables and benchmarks included as part of our public agreement," wrote Gary Cook of Greenpeace in an email on the subject shortly after his group dropped its campaign. "This was not possible from their side due to associated financial sensitivities [because Facebook was not yet public]."

Cook continued, "Because of our private agreement and belief that Facebook is serious about its own commitment to clean energy and the policy advocacy that are part of this commitment, we believe the commitments announced ... will ultimately have a significant impact both among other IT companies as they feel pressure to follow suit, and as more IT companies adopt similar commitments."

For an organization that often pressures companies to be transparent about their practices, Greenpeace's private agreement with Facebook comes across as a bit hypocritical. How can it claim victory even though we have no idea what that so-called victory entails? Sounds like a good-faith agreement that doesn't hold water.

With Facebook's failing stock the company is going to be under tremendous pressure to produce exceptional financial results for its shareholders. As such, Facebook could easily backtrack from its good faith promises and say that now is not the time to invest in costly green energy.

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While Facebook refuses to show publicly how it plans to use renewable energy to power up its massive data servers, Apple is actually making hard commitments. Just this month Apple said that by early 2013 it would use "renewable" sources like solar, wind and hydro-dams to power up all of its data centers around the globe. (Of course, someone ought to remind Apple that dams aren't truly enviro-friendly, just ask endangered salmon in the Northwest.)

Apple's move is a step in the right direction, but note this has only to do with its data storage and not its manufacturing practices, which is an entirely different beast.

That said, Apple's committment to use renewable energy for its data centers is significant, bold and a new milestone for the industry. The merits of what defines its energy as renewable may be contested, but regardless, when compared to Facebook's Oregon facility, Apple is showing Zuckerberg how to get the job done. And to top it off, Apple is also in the planning stages of building a data center of its own in Prineville, Oregon and if it sticks to its goals, its new facility will employ only renewable energy once up and running.

The search engine giant Google, unfortunately, is not forthcoming about its data centers. An educated guess would put the number of its centers in the dozens. But since little is known about Google's actual server facilities, even less is known about where Google derives its energy. The company states that it is "committed to using renewable energy, like wind and solar, as much as possible" but mostly relies on power generated from the grid, which "isn't currently very green."

So in terms of energy transperancy, Google is far behind both Facebook and Apple.

Recently, Greenpeace waged a public campaign against Apple's energy practices in North Carolina, focusing on ending its use of coal power produced by Duke Energy at its Maiden, N.C. data facility. Based in Charlotte, Duke has been the target of numerous environmental lawsuits and protests for its polluting ways. In 2005 Duke had 70 coal-fired generating stations.

"Apple's announcement [about going renewable by 2013]... is a great sign that Apple is taking seriously the hundreds of thousands of its customers who have asked for an iCloud powered by clean energy, not dirty coal," a Greenpeace spokesman told Grist.org via email.

However, according to Apple, it's long been set to wean off of coal, and has been planning its recent announcement, as well as the purchasing of land for solar arrays, for quite some time -- even before the passing of Steve Jobs, an Apple executive tells me. All of this occurred before Greenpeace sent its "cloud-cleaning" activists to Apple stores in New York, San Francisco and Toronto last month. Still some are hailing Greenpeace as having forced Apple to embrace renewables, even though the tech giant has long been planning to roll out its clean energy agenda.

Currently Greenpeace is waging campaigns against other data storage behemoths that use coal like Amazon.com and Microsoft -- rightly so -- and the hope is that they follow Apple's green lead. Here's also to hoping that Greenpeace restarts its innovative campaign against Facebook, as well as Google, until the companies commit to using 100-percent renewable energy.

 

Joshua Frank is an environmental journalist and author of "Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush." He is co-editor, with Jeffrey St. Clair, of "Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland." Frank and St. Clair are also the authors of the forthcoming book, "Green Scare: The New War on Environmentalism." He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.
 
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