Disliking Facebook’s Environmental Status
Why The Social Networking Site Is Polluting More Than Minds
This is the story of why one girl quit Facebook, and how she survived to tell the tale.
The thought of quitting has occurred to everyone at least once.
Suffice to say that the time wasted updating statuses, ‘‘liking’‘ trivial commentary and declining invitations to cringe-worthy events is ample ground on which to leave the social networking scene.
However, it isn’t the uselessness of Facebook that made me quit.
As the environmental price for such ridiculous luxuries as relationship statuses, news feeds and endless virtual photo albums becomes more obvious, the more critical it is to fight for change.
In January 2010, Facebook started the construction of its first custom data centre, located in Prineville, OR. Sixty to 70 per cent of the centre’s energy, which is purchased from a company named Pacific Power, is coal-generated.
A data centre, or server farm, is an industrial building that houses rows upon rows of inter-connected servers, which then quench society’s networking thirst through fiber optic cables that connect the data centre to individual users. When users consult links on Facebook, they automatically connect to one or several of the servers in this building, which then sends back the required information. These servers are all networked together, and together contain all of the website’s memory.
“Data centres and telecommunication networks, which bring information to mobile devices like the iPad and services like Facebook, will consume about 1,963 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2020,” said Daniel Kessler, who is the head of communications for Greenpeace International’s Green Technologies Campaign.
A Greenpeace report shows that this is more energy consumption than that of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined. Using current technology, the social network’s data centre can only swell in volume.
It is currently the size of three football fields.
Facebook gets 100 billion hits per day. The website boasts 2 trillion objects cached, with hundreds of millions of requests per second. To execute this monumental task, the company developed a custom technology called Proprietary Uninterruptible Power Supply, which continually provides energy to the centre and claims to diminish electricity use by 12 per cent.
Why would Facebook put such significant effort into creating technology that reduces energy consumption, yet still run the centre on coal?
Some say that Facebook wants to profit from the relatively low cost of coal, and then keep its power consumption at a minimum to save money.
“[Facebook] say that their data centre is energy efficient, which is true, but that only tells half the story. The fact is they have chosen to go with a utility that gets almost 60 per cent of their energy from coal,” said Kessler.
Steven Forrester is the City Manager of Prineville. According to him, the construction of the social networking site’s data centre has done only good for the community. The company has been donating money to local schools and free medical centres, as well as local sports teams.
“Our unemployment rate right now is running at 17 per cent. As we speak, [the data centre has created] 250 construction jobs, and many of these jobs have been filled with local auto-works people, construction workers, welders, plumbers and local contractors who have had the opportunity to go back to work,” said Forrester. “It’s made a tremendous impact on our local economy.”
Once construction is complete, the data centre will only need 35 employees to run it. Forrester claimed that the centre would create auxiliary jobs, such as ground-maintenance and repair, which will continue to help the economy.
“We’ve been a very timber-dependent economy, so when the saw mills left the area as a result of government policies, [on top of] the home crisis and overall economy, we lost hundreds of jobs,” said Forrester. “Strategically, we feel that this data centre will open up the path to economic diversification in a completely new industry that we never would have dreamed was possible.”
Coal generators produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to global warming. Coal also releases sulphur when it is burned, which in turn produces acid rain.
“As a progressive company, [Facebook] should be better than the standard, which is only having a proportion of renewable fuel,” said Beatrice Olivastri, CEO at Friends of the Earth, a Canadian environmental group.
“They should have a higher complement of renewable energy to show interest and commitment to the issues we’re facing.”
The Oregon data centre is host to the website’s information; that is, all of its information. The 85-word status pertaining to what you were doing “2nite” three years ago, or the super sweet echo-graphic photo of you in your 13th week of gestation, along with everything anyone has ever posted, need to be stored perpetually for the site to stay functional.
As of July 2010, Facebook had 500 million users, each of whose data is stored on those servers indefinitely.
Studies show that data centres and telecommunications networks are to triple their energy expenditure over the next 10 years. If changes are not put into effect, the climate will ultimately inherit the misbegotten spoils of the industry’s dirty energy.
“Facebook can do a number of things, including [locating] their infrastructure where there is renewable energy and working with local governments to create additional renewable energy to run their services,” said Kessler.
Northern countries like Finland, for instance, are a popular location for server farms. Not only does the country use renewable resources to create electricity, its cold climate allows for less energy to be spent on cooling the server locales. Many centres in Finland sell the excess heat produced by the servers to district heating networks.
“It will be one of the most efficient data centres in the world because [Prineville’s] climate will offset the effects,” said Forrester. “I can’t think of a power unity in the U.S. that is not dependent on fossil fuels.”
Outsourcing is a solution to the environmental problem, but does not cause governments to give companies tax breaks.
“This country is exporting its technology and exporting its economy, and that’s wrong, and the people of Prineville think that’s wrong,” Forrester said. “We have to continue to push our public utilities to continue to develop alternative energy resources.”
Forrester said he hopes that the data centre will create job opportunities for young people. Considering the fragile state of the environment, it’s a hope that hinges on the assumption that the world can continue to sustain human life.
The preponderance of social networking has become such that any of its tools, while causing major damage to the well-being of the planet, are also the most efficient way of communicating issues of global importance to the masses. It is with great reticence that one must admit, with a tip of the hat to irony, that the next logical step would be to join an environmental group… on Facebook.
This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 12, published November 2, 2010.