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Your Facebook Carbon Footprint Barely Registers, But the Company Has Work to Do

Facebook discloses its carbon footprint and energy use for the first time.
August 1, 2012

Facebook, for the first time, has voluntarily released hard numbers about how much energy it consumes and carbon it emits. The stats contain reassuring news for addict users who are concerned with their environmental footprint. However, the figures are mixed where the company itself is concerned. 

In 2011, the average Facebook visitor sent 263 grams of carbon into the atmosphere over the entire year by using the site—the equivalent of consuming one medium latte, three large bananas, or a few glasses of wine, according to the Facebook’s numbers. Seems like a great deal, given all of the social benefits that Facebook creates for its 955 million users. 

However, the company has been under pressure from outside environmentalists to use more clean energy. Of its total 532 million kilowatt hours of energy used in 2011, 23 percent of that came from clean and renewable sources. But growing that percentage, Facebook admits, “will be challenging.” And it says its carbon footprint and energy mix may get worse before it gets better. Reaching its minimally improved 25 percent renewables goal by 2015 will be helped by its new hydropower data center in Sweden now under construction. (Read “Facebook’s New Power Player”, my Q&A with Facebook’s Bill Weihl for more details the social network’s sustainability challenges). 

What’s also important to remember is how important reducing its energy costs is to Facebook’s business. Building and operating energy-intense data centers is the company’s largest cost (see “The Biggest Cost of Facebook’s Growth”), and comprised 96 percent of the its 2011 energy use. To please investors, Facebook must keep the rising costs of operating data centers and servers at pace with its revenues. 

One comparison may be helpful here: Facebook’s 2011 energy use is about 26 percent of the 2 billion kilowatt hours that Google, still a much larger business, used in 2010. However, Facebook’s recently reported revenues in the second quarter of this year were only 14 percent of Google’s. In other words, Facebook is likely using a larger percentage of its revenues to pay its energy bills. The company, however, can’t be faulted for not trying its hardest to reduce these bills. Through initiatives like its Open Compute Project, Facebook’s data servers are far more energy efficient than industry averages. In fact, according to Facebook’s data, they are nearing the theoretically possible limits.  

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