Does Facebook Deserve the Hell It's Getting from Greenpeace?

04/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Social networking giant Facebook has been taking heat from enviros recently for its decision to site a massive new data center in Prineville, Ore. The issue? Pacific Power, the utility that serves Prineville, gets most of its power from coal, the enemy of the human race. Greenpeace International has started a Facebook group opposing the move.

Facebook, clearly feeling some heat, responded to the controversy over the weekend. Its new data center will involve all sorts of efficiency efforts, but the company’s main argument is that the dry, temperate climate in Oregon will allow it to forego any mechanical chillers or air conditioners (an evaporative cooling system will be used instead). Said the company ...

... if we located the data center most other places, we would need mechanical chillers, use more energy, and be responsible for more overall carbon in the air—even if that location was fueled by more renewable energy.

In other words, in this individual case, efficiency trumps clean energy. I’m not really qualified to do the math, but it sounds persuasive to me.

Technically, though, Greenpeace isn’t asking them to site the data center somewhere else. The group says:

Facebook should change the terms of its power purchase agreement with PacifiCorp so that it is powered with renewables before the Oregon data centre goes online.

Obviously PacifiCorp can’t route individual electrons so that only the clean ones get to the data center—and if it could it wouldn’t make much difference since it would just route the dirty ones elsewhere.  I doubt the utility will substantially alter its generation portfolio in the short-term just to accommodate one data center. Regardless, its portfolio will change over time in response to Oregon’s 25 percent by 2020 renewable energy standard. So I’m not clear what such a PPA would accomplish aside from symbolism. I’m open to being corrected on this point, though—utility contracts are somewhat mystifying.

Anyway, from my non-expert perspective, it looks like Facebook is getting a bit of a raw deal here, PR-wise.

However! I still like Greenpeace’s campaign, for a simple reason: it reinforces a social norm. You shouldn’t use coal. You should use clean energy. Not everyone is able to control where they get their electricity, of course, but when a choice presents itself, choosing clean energy is the right thing to do. There’s more to it than short-term economics, namely social responsibility and reputation.

There’s immense power in changing social norms. Economists don’t know quite how to capture their impact in models, but history reveals their potency. This is another way of making the point about transparency Jon made the other day (if you haven’t read his post, you should): what gets measured gets fixed. What gets attention from NGOs and the public will get attention from market analysts and corporate executives.

National politicians in the U.S. have to tap dance around coal for various reasons, but civil society doesn’t. It can help expose coal power as akin to child labor—cheap and plentiful, perhaps, but archaic and inexcusable. Social norms are no substitute for legislation, but they’re powerful in their own right, and if Greenpeace needs to beat up a semi-innocent Facebook to help change them, well, omelets and broken eggs and all that.