Data Centre Carbon Counting – Could It Cool The Arguments?

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When Facebook fell out with Greenpeace over coal-fired power, the new Green Grid measurement might have helped sort things out, says Peter Judge

Arguments about data centre power took a nasty turn earlier this year.

Facebook announced it had a very efficient new data centre, in Oregon, that used just about as little energy as it possibly could.  And suddenly Greenpeace started kicking it hard, because the energy it did use, came from coal-fired power stations.

Facebook built its data centre – the first one it fully owned – in Pineville, Oregon, and it is impressively efficient. The local climate allows it to use outside air temperatures for cooling most of the year round, so it doesn’t have to waste much electricity on refrigeration for the servers.

Greenpeace objected to the centre, because the local power utility burns a lot of coal, and isn’t moving as fast on renewable energy as Greenpeace would like. The environmental activist group therefore started a campaign to persuade Facebook to “unfriend coal”.

Higher standards for Facebook?

Facebook has a higher carbon footprint than if it built its data centre somewhere where there is wind-power or hydroelectric power available, but it says it is greener because the climate in Oregon lets it use less energy.

Now, Greenpeace’s arguments are often based on emotions, and in this case, the environmental group seemed to be saying that, even if Facebook was being a good environmental citizen, it should be held to higher standards. Greenpeace seemed to be saying that if everyone else cleaned up their energy to avoid a PR hit, then it was OK to unfairly slate Facebook’s energy choices.

I’m not sure I agree with that at all.

But I’m glad to see that the Green Grid now has a measurement which might be able to put this sort of argument on a more technical footing.

The new CUE (carbon usage effectiveness) measure multiplies on to PUE to give a figure for how much carbon a data centre causes through its power usage, taking into account any electricity it generates locally (including dirty diesel for backup and green on-site wind farms).

A sensible standard

So Facebook and Greenpeace could sit down and discuss PUE (energy efficiency) and CUE (carbon footprint) separately. As it turns out Facebook’s utility actually does have some renewables, so the CUE figure might not be as bad as Greenpeace was suggesting. In fact, probably not as bad as Greenpeace’s own energy use.

I’d like to see that happen – though I think the emotive side of this one may make it impossible. Apart from anything else, Greenpeace and Facebook represent two generations of social networking. Where Greenpeace runs marches, Facebook users just seem to sit around sniggering at each other. I believe that Greenpeace’s attack on Facebook may have been, at least partly, an expression of exasperation at the sheer triviality of most Facebookers’ involvement with a world which Greenpeace would prefer us to actually save.

Even if it can’t sort out arguments like that, CUE could give us a new basis for valuing the contribution of efforts like OWC’s wind-powered data centre in Illinois, and Google’s long term support for wind power.

There is no standard scientific unit to measure virtue, but CUE could be a step towards it in the data centre world.

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