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Clean concept: An sculpture carved from ice celebrates Facebook’s plans to build a data center in Lulea, Sweden, that will be powered by hydroelectricity.

How much electricity does sharing a photo on Facebook take? How much carbon does it put into the atmosphere?

Facebook doesn’t reveal how much energy it uses. But overall, the vast computer farms that handle Internet data now use up 1.3 percent of the electricity generated globally. Facebook’s energy use has been growing particularly fast. It processes more than 250 million photo uploads each day, and some two million “like”s and comments every minute.

Energy is foremost a competitive issue for Facebook. The computers, facilities, personnel, and electricity needed to keep your profile up to date, and available anywhere, are the company’s largest single expense. That’s one reason Facebook began to design and build more energy-efficient server farms from scratch. Its first data center, opened last April in Prineville, Oregon, uses 38 percent less energy than other facilities to do the same work, according to the company.

Still, the data center has a capacity to draw 28 megawatts of power. That is about as much as everything else in Crook County (population 26,000), where it’s located. What’s more, the power comes from a utility that burns coal to make energy. A coal-powered social network? In the image-conscious tech world, green credibility matters. It wasn’t long before Greenpeace turned Facebook into the target of an aggressive “Unfriend Coal” campaign that garnered 181,000 “likes” on Facebook’s own Web pages. 

All of this is why Bill Weihl is important. The computer scientist was named a “hero of the environment” by Time magazine in 2009 for his work at Google, where he served as clean-energy chief until January. Now  Facebook has recruited Weihl to be its own point man on energy at a critical time. The company is expanding its Prineville facility and is building two more data centers—one in North Carolin, and another in Sweden, which will use hydroelectricity. More are to come as the network marches toward the billion-user mark, which it is likely to hit this year.

Business editor Jessica Leber spoke with Weihl, whose title is manager of energy efficiency and sustainability, to learn whether the social network will try to reduce its use of fossil fuels and help its users cut down as well.

TR: What’s exciting about your job?

Weihl: It’s been enormously fun digging in and learning how the systems are put together here. Facebook is leading the world in data-center energy efficiency. But we’re just beginning to get our heads around how to green our energy supply. We’re connected to the same grid as everyone else, and our energy mix is not that different from the U.S. grid. We’d like it to be cleaner over time. We’d like it to be cheaper over time. We’d like to find ways to make that happen that isn’t only about greening the electrons that flow into our facilities, but is about greening the grid as a whole. I don’t have the answers to that yet. But that’s really the goal.

How much energy does Facebook use in a day?

We haven’t disclosed that yet. Once we’re past the IPO, we plan to be significantly more transparent, obviously, than we have been to date. We’re working on figuring out what we can disclose and how to do it. This being Facebook, it’ll be sort of an iterative, experimental process.

A campaign by Greenpeace against Facebook’s first data center ended in December when your company agreed to “prefer” future data-center sites that use renewable power. What did Facebook agree to and why? 

Greenpeace saw Facebook’s announcement a couple of years ago about putting the data center in Prineville, Oregon. It’s in an area where coal is a relatively high percentage of the fuel mix. Greenpeace put a lot of pressure on Facebook. They made a lot of noise about it. They just don’t want to see that happen at all.

What Facebook agreed to do wasn’t really about Greenpeace. It was about what’s important to us. We look at a lot of sites and, all other things being equal, we will pick the one with cleaner power. But there are also business needs around finding sites with adequate power, finding sites where the cost structure works, finding sites that can be built out in a time frame that matters for the business.

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Credits: Facebook

Tagged: Business, Business Impact, Facebook, business

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