Facebook is Greening the Grid

Facebook is driving toward 100 percent cleaner energy sourcing in its network of distributed data centers, and other companies get to ride its green coattails

From a resource-use perspective, the digital world gives and takes. Never before has so much information been at our fingertips, with little time or effort required. But, a few simple keystrokes on a computer—multiplied by millions of users—can consume a lot of electricity at a data center many miles away.

With roughly 2 billion users worldwide, Facebook processes a countless number of keystrokes, photos, and videos daily through hundreds of thousands of servers that run on prodigious amounts of power. But, it is this information sharing—via multiparty collaboration—that ultimately enables Facebook to find ways to reduce energy consumption at its data centers. Equally important, the iconic social media company has devised means to minimize its power draw from the grid, to use renewable, clean energy, and to employ water for cooling in increasingly efficient ways.

Best of all, the renewable-energy infrastructure that Facebook fosters ends up benefiting other energy producers and users, all while strengthening the local economies where its data centers are built.

In order to achieve this, Facebook works with critically important partners, including utilities and wind- and solar-farm developers. In addition, the company is part of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA), an organization of large power users that works with suppliers and policymakers to find renewable-energy solutions that ultimately “green the grid for all.” Facebook’s newest data center, under construction in Papillion, Nebraska, provides a thorough example of how that works.

The data center, going up near Omaha, Nebraska, and set to be online by 2020, will be one of nine dedicated data centers that the company operates (additional servers are in co-location facilities that the company leases). The firm is working closely with the power utility Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) to source energy from wind farms that are within close distance of Nebraska.

“Utilities no longer consider renewables as a problem. They recognize this kind of energy sourcing is attractive to companies like Facebook, and that it’s a positive for local markets.”

But OPPD has to make capital investments to do that, which could raise some red flags. Long-standing customers do not want to pay more just for the newcomer to be able to make a green claim. This complaint, here and elsewhere, has been answered with renewable-energy tariffs paid by Facebook and other companies. These “green tariffs” impose a slightly higher cost on the large customer to offset costs associated with developing renewables.

Meanwhile, an improved green infrastructure for the power generators and utilities means they can attract other companies with large energy needs and get them to relocate here. Most are sustainability-oriented firms that generate new jobs.

“Renewable-energy tariffs have been an increasing requirement for many large corporations,” explains Tim O’Brien, manager of economic development for OPPD. “We have been able to react to these needs with our first renewable structure in 2015 and, most recently, a market-based structure that is one of the first of its kind in the nation.”

The existing customers of OPPD will see no general rate increases for five years, according to O’Brien. The utility already derives about 30 percent of its retail sales portfolio from renewables, and O’Brien anticipates that will rise to 50 percent under what OPPD calls its Integrated Resource Plan, which involves increasing renewable energy sources while retiring aging coal and nuclear plants.

The person at Facebook charged with hammering out the details of these arrangements with OPPD and other utility companies is Peter Freed, Facebook’s renewable energy manager. “My work is everything related to supplying power to our data centers,” Freed explains. He participates in the strategic and tactical phases of locating new data centers, energy sourcing, and terms. That includes investigating extant local market factors.

Freed says that a sufficient fiber network has to be in place as well as a workforce capable of building and staffing the data center. The company generates roughly 800–1,000 jobs in the data center’s construction phase, plus hundreds of permanent jobs related to its operation. Facebook’s Prineville, Oregon, data center, for example, started construction in 2010, has been operating since 2013, and is still under construction as new buildings are added to it.

Freed has worked in deregulated markets, where there is more energy-supplier choice, as well as regulated markets, overseen by a single utility. “Both have their advantages, and neither is a deal killer,” he says. “But, if a supplier has no pathway to providing renewable energy, we can’t be there.”

In the case of Papillion and OPPD, all the pieces to satisfy Facebook were there or developed for them, and the company’s potential presence is already paying dividends, according to O’Brien. “A marquee name such as Facebook absolutely draws additional interest to our area,” he says. He won’t name any of the relocating companies yet, but he adds, “Let’s just say we continue to be very busy at this time. On the renewables side, these projects provide an economic boon for Nebraska.”

From his experience in the Nebraska utility market and others, Freed provides this bright note for sustainability advocates: “Utilities no longer consider renewables as a problem. They recognize that this kind of energy sourcing is attractive to companies like Facebook and that it’s a positive for local markets.”

He adds that it’s important for utilities to approach renewables and the infrastructure to support them with a broad outlook. “It’s super important for them to not have a narrow, Facebook-only solution,” Freed says.

But, it would be a folly if the social media behemoth just worked at sourcing renewable energy without addressing its own power demand. Data centers are historically hogs when it comes to resources. They not only consume electricity to run servers, but all the heat they generate could cause a social media meltdown—figuratively and literally.

As American Builders Quarterly previously reported, Jay Park, the firm’s vice president of data-center design, already fixed a problem involving undesirable voltage and nonlinear loads that led to inefficiencies and power-quality issues. The solution dramatically improved the firm’s power-usage effectiveness (PUE) and water-usage effectiveness (WUE) at Facebook’s Prineville data center, where it was first applied.

PUE and WUE are efficiency measures by which Bill Weihl, director of sustainability at Facebook, determines his own success. But, he’s quick to add that the sum usage of energy and water matters as much as degrees of efficiency. “We look at the full stack of everything,” Weihl says.

Weihl’s description of stored photography from each of Facebook’s 2 billion users brings home what efficiency really means. “Data, including photos and video, have to be put somewhere,” he says. “But, instead of keeping things rarely accessed on a spinning disk, we put it into cold storage. If a user starts hunting up that data, the system intuitively recognizes the search, and the disc starts spinning.” There is no perceptible delay in finding that photo, despite the conservation tactic.

Weihl, who holds a PhD in computer science from MIT, says he’s most excited about what’s coming out of REBA, the clean-energy buyer alliance. The organization has 60 multinational companies that want renewable energy on a scale similar to Facebook.

Facebook founder and chairman Mark Zuckerberg has stated his intention to source 100 percent of the company’s energy from renewable sources. He also invests his own money, along with entrepreneurs Bill Gates, Richard Branson, et al., in the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to accelerate development of renewables to a massive and substantial degree.

That brings home this idea that the leaders in our modern economy are hugely interdependent, interconnected, and, under the best of circumstances, a collective of shared resources directed toward broad environmental goals. What’s happening in Nebraska shows us what that looks like.

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