Sustainability | Ecotrope

Shrinking The Carbon Footprint Of Facebook

Ecotrope | May 3, 2012 8:45 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:31 p.m.

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Designers and builders of Facebook's Prineville Data Center discussed the sustainability strengths and weaknesses of the 150,000 square-foot facility on Wednesday.

Designers and builders of Facebook's Prineville Data Center discussed the sustainability strengths and weaknesses of the 150,000 square-foot facility on Wednesday.

Remember the Greenpeace “unfriend coal” campaign against Facebook using coal-fired power at its Prineville Data Center? The company gets its electricity from PacifiCorp, which means its energy mix is about 60 percent coal-fired power.

So, the data center is using quite a bit of coal-fired power to store the photos and personal musings of 9 million Facebook users. For a while, it was a secret how much total power the Prineville data center was using. But this piece from Data Center Knowledge suggests the company has pegged it at 28 megawatts – nearly as much as all of the surrounding Crook County.

“There does not exist such a thing in the world today as a sustainable data center.”                                                      — Josh Hatch, Sustainability Advisor

With all that in mind, I stopped into a discussion about sustainable data centers at the Living Future Conference in Portland yesterday. Several reps from Portland firms that helped build the Prineville data center were there, as well as Marco Magarelli, Facebook’s data center design manager.

Josh Hatch of the Portland sustainability consulting firm Brightworks helped Facebook assess the environmental impacts of its data center operations. And he didn’t mince words at the session. The Prineville data center is certified as a LEED Gold green building, he said. And it was painstakingly designed for energy efficiency so it uses 52 percent less energy than a comparable data center.

“But there is one thing this project is not,” said Hatch. “This project is not sustainable. It has taken several important steps toward sustainability, but there does not exist such a thing in the world today as a sustainable data center.”

The data for 9 million Facebook users is stored on servers in the Prineville Data Center, which uses nearly as much energy as the 20,000 people in the surrounding Crook County.

The data for 9 million Facebook users is stored on servers in the Prineville Data Center, which uses nearly as much energy as the 20,000 people in the surrounding Crook County.

As Data Centers Multiply…

Anyone who uses the Internet is leaning on data centers for information storage, Hatch said: If you have a Gmail account, a Facebook page, if you watch Netflix online … you’re part of the reason data centers are multiplying.

Between 2000 and 2005, data storage doubled. From 2005-10 it grew by another 36 percent. Data centers now represent 2 percent of all the electricity consumed.

“They’re small numbers, but when small numbers grow exponentially, they get big pretty quickly,” Hatch said. “We are increasingly reliant on data centers in our jobs, in our lives, in business.”

The major challenges of making data centers sustainable are minimizing energy needed to run the servers and keep them at the right temperature. And adjusting the power mix that’s fueling the operation.

Magarelli said it’s important to store date close to where people need to access it –”so you can write to the data center and pull off of it quickly.” That determines many of the sustainability challenges – particularly with regard to energy use.

Breakthroughs In Sustainability

Facebook made some major breakthroughs in sustainability when it designed its Prineville data center, the panelists agreed. On a very basic basic level (more details here), they include:

  • A cooling system that uses outside air and evaporated water to keep servers at the right temperature (as opposed to chillers that use electricity for cooling).
  • Ultra-efficient servers that can run at higher temperatures (8 or 9 degrees hotter than normal), so they require less cooling.
  • Server and building designs that require less material and use electricity more efficiently.

The dry and mostly cool climate in Prineville helped make Facebook’s low-impact “evaporative cooling” system possible, said Charlie Holm, the Prineville Data Center project manager for Fortis Construction in Portland. But Facebook did a lot of innovative work on top of that.

“They designed their own server,” he explained. “They customized every aspect of that server so it would operate at a higher temperature than what you’d buy off the shelves.”

Architect Miles Woofter of Woofter Architecture was in the audience with me. He designed a data center for the state of Oregon in 2006 that got a LEED Silver green building certification. And he said he’s impressed by Facebook’s work.

“It’s impressive for two reasons,” he said. “The power supply and the server design. Facebook is taking a leadership role in the industry and changing data centers around the world. We achieved 20 percent energy savings from baseline. Facebook saved 50 percent.”

Is Sustainability Even Possible?

Magarelli said Facebook has considered numerous ideas for shrinking the environmental footprint of its data centers – including using waste heat from servers to power office space or an on-site greenhouse and using fuel cells or portable nuclear plants to power the facilities.

One of the sustainable elements of the company’s existing data centers is that they were built in areas where other energy-intensive industries had left – so there was excess capacity on the grid to be tapped and no new power plants were required to serve their energy needs.

In Prineville, the grid was built to serve sawmills that have gone out of business. In North Carolina, the new Facebook data center is relying on power once used by textile mills.

But true sustainability? Like net-zero energy and water use?

“I’m not sure it’s even possible,” said Hatch.

Data centers have energy needs that are “hundreds of times larger” than commercial office buildings, he said.

“It’s beyond the amount of solar panels you can put on a roof,” he said. “The roof isn’t big enough.”

So, he said, the next question is: “On a system level – on the grid – how are we creating clean energy to support our data use?”

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