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Jennifer Grayson

Jennifer Grayson

Posted: January 6, 2011 09:30 AM

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

I've heard that the internet and social networking use a lot of energy. Would deleting my Facebook account make a difference?

-Jerry

When I first heard about The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin's lightning-paced film about the equally meteoric rise of Facebook, my first thought was: Already? The story of social media wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg promised to be compelling, no doubt, but it was seemingly too timely. The company was founded in 2004, for goodness sake. Was it already legitimate docudrama territory?

Then I saw the film, and realized: This is the way the world changed. Those six years since the founding of Facebook may as well have been a hundred. We will never, ever be the same.

We've become a world of information-hungry, media-greedy, virtual-relationship-making addicts. None of that is expected to change anytime soon: Facebook is now the most-visited website in the United States.

So what does all this photo-sharing and status-updating mean for the environment? Well, a lot of energy use, for one.

The eco impact of the internet isn't readily visible: Accessing Facebook via your iPhone seems clean and green (Look ma, no trees!). But information and communication technology contributes to 2 percent of global CO2 emissions. That's as much as the aviation industry.

Facebook, in particular, relies on something called cloud computing. Put simply, this means the software and media for your account aren't stored on your actual computer (or in your mobile device), but rather in a "cloud" of data, housed and shared from giant server farms all over the country.

In the US, these data centers consume over $7 billion a year in electricity costs. And that number is growing: Greenpeace estimates that worldwide, data centers and telecommunication will triple their electricity consumption in the next 10 years.

By 2020, the cloud that Facebook and other sites rely on could be eating up more electricity than France, Germany, Canada, and Brazil combined.

Where Facebook has caught a lot of flack, in particular, is in the type of energy it's using to power its data centers. Both its facilities (one in Prineville, OR, and the newest in Forest City, NC) source the majority of their power from coal -- the number one source of climate change.

PacifiCorp, the utility company in Prineville, does offer a "green" power option, in which a larger percentage of its electricity mix comes from renewables. The social media mammoth, however, has yet to sign on. One can only assume that for now, Facebook's figures are more important than its commitment to clean energy.

Facebook argues that it is going green with its Prineville structure. Its location in the Pacific Northwest means less electricity is required to keep servers cool; an important consideration, considering that cooling a data center alone can account for up to 60 percent of its energy usage. The building will also be LEED-certified.

But building a "green" data center around a dirty source of fuel is kind of like fueling a calorie-restricted diet with McDonald's. So what's a sustainability-minded social networker to do?

You could delete your Facebook account. But while that might feel good for oh, about a nanosecond, the act would be futile at best. That's because many of the internet services we use every day also use cloud computing.

Web-based mail like Yahoo. That Netflix movie streaming to your iPad. Photo-sharing via Google Picasa. YouTube. Twitter. In the Information Age, conspicuous expression is the new conspicuous consumption.

And, like Facebook, many of these companies depend on dirty energy: Microsoft's Chicago data center pulls more than 70 percent of its power from coal; Apple's center in North Carolina, 50 percent.

Those numbers shouldn't sound so shocking; after all, half of all electricity generated in the US comes from coal-fired plants. But we're talking about the most cutting-edge companies in the world. Shouldn't they be setting the trend for sourcing sustainable energy?

Some companies, ostensibly, are making a move in the right direction. Yahoo must be feeling the green guilt over its La Vista, NE, data center (73.5% coal); its newer server farms in Washington state and upstate New York rely heavily on hydroelectric power.

But until the federal government stops subsidizing coal and other fossil fuels, Facebook and other companies will always be focused on a different kind of green: their bottom line.

So if it makes you feel better, you can try urging Facebook to use renewable energy by joining a Greenpeace protest group on, ahem, Facebook. And then log out and call your senator.

 

Follow Jennifer Grayson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jennigrayson