Facebook’s Energy Challenge


Facebook has officially moved from Menlo Park, California, to a new 150,000-square-foot data center in Prineville, Oregon, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling the new facility “a massive step up.” The data center is a massive energy improvement, too. In addition to better housing Facebook’s large-scale IT needs, the new center was built with state-of-the-art energy efficiency technology.

The energy it takes to run data centers and servers in the U.S. is enough to power almost 6 million homes and all of the nation’s televisions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA projected that in 2011, data centers would require so much electricity that 10 power plants would have to be built to keep them running.

The Facebook facility’s desert location was chosen by in part because the cool, dry nights would allow them to implement a passive cooling system, which eliminates the need for air conditioning by using misters and fans to pull chilled air through a series of washable mesh filters. Facebook also purchased servers without paint and logos that are six pounds lighter than the ones they had in California and are easier to cool. “These servers are 38% more efficient than the servers we were buying previously,” said Jonathan Heiliger, Vice President of Technical Operations at Facebook. In addition to saving more than 120 tons of server material from being manufactured, transported and discarded, they’re also 24% cheaper than the old servers.

A data center’s efficiency is typically measured by the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) rating. PUE is a ratio of how much total power is consumed to cool and run the data center versus how much power is consumed for actual IT data processing. If half of the data center’s power usage goes toward data processing and the other half goes to running and cooling the facility, the PUE rating is 2.0. Most data centers run at a 1.5 rating. Facebook’s new data center will run at a more efficient 1.07. 100% efficiency, or a PUE rating of 1.0, would mean every bit of power would go toward only data processing. With their 1.07 rating, Facebook is aiming to save enough energy to power over 160,000 homes.

Facebook is sharing their efficiency ideas through the new Open Compute Project, in hopes that other companies will want to emulate their efficiency and savings. “It is time to stop treating data centers like Fight Club,” Heiliger said in reference to the 1999 film where “The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.” Intel, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Skype are among the companies that have signed on to be a part of the Open Compute Project, and the project will also be put to use in developing countries.

Greenpeace, however, wants to see Facebook go from using less coal power to completely clean energy. The organization’s “Unfriend Coal” campaign, which ends on Earth Day, calls for Facebook to run its data center with solely renewable power by 2021. The campaign’s website states: “Facebook says that the new building and all the technology within it will be state of the art, energy efficient stuff. Saving energy makes good business sense, and it’s good for the environment too. But data centers still consume massive amounts of energy to run computers, backup power, and related cooling equipment. If Facebook’s data center runs on fossil fuels, then it’s contributing to climate change.”

Last week, Greenpeace broke a Guinness World Record with their Unfriend Coal campaign by getting the most comments on a Facebook page in 24 hours, achieving just over 80,000 comments. Greenpeace then scrolled these comments across a screen outside of Facebook’s offices. However, the Unfriend Coal campaign has only 166,000 “likes” as of this article, accounting for mere .033% of Facebook’s 500 million total users. If that proves to be too small a support base to get Facebook to commit to a switch to renewables on Earth Day, the campaign can at least be credited with getting Facebook’s attention.

In a letter to Greenpeace Director Kumi Naidoo, Heiliger wrote: “Just as Facebook believes in using the power and reach of our platform to help effect environmental change, I hope Greenpeace can use the power of your membership to encourage participation in and adoption of the Open Compute Project. Toward that goal, members of my team have already set up a meeting next week with representatives of Greenpeace. We look forward to answering any questions you have about the Open Compute Project and continuing our overall discussion.” Greenpeace campaigner Casey Harrell responded by stating, “We look forward to engaging with Facebook to make this emphasis on open-sourced data fully holistic. Green IT should not be a choice between energy efficiency and energy emissions: we need both—energy efficient, renewable energy powered data centers. In order to combat the climate crisis, we need to move toward cleaner sources of energy.”