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Greenpeace to Facebook CEO: No More Coal

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Greenpeace isn’t clicking the “like” button for Facebook’s new data center. Wednesday morning, Greenpeace stepped up its campaign against Facebook’s decision to build its latest data center in Oregon in the footprint of utility Pacific Power that largely derives electricity from coal. The environmental group sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking him to commit to phasing out the use of coal-generated electricity to power Facebook’s data centers.

The move is just the latest from Greenpeace to put pressure on Facebook’s data center decision. Earlier this year Greenpeace started an, er, Facebook campaign around the topic, which now has a half million members. Last month when Facebook said it would double the size of the new data center before it was even built, Greenpeace responded by saying Facebook had “irresponsibly chosen to double-down its bet on dirty energy.”

While few Internet companies have plans to cut coal completely out of the equation to power their energy-hungry data centers, some companies are being a lot more proactive than others. Take Google (s GOOG): Earlier this year, Google entered into a contract to buy clean power from a wind farm in Iowa, and, as I wrote in this GigaOM Pro article (subscription required) I think that decision was made with its data centers in mind.

Facebook can easily argue with Greenpeace that the cost of energy from renewables is just too high right now to be economical to power data centers in many places in the country, and they’d be right. However, I think Facebook could add a lot bigger dose of innovation and leadership to the matter.

Google is doing it, and using its heft to experiment with clean power. As Google’s Green Energy Czar Bill Weihl told us in an interview, Google can agree to buy wind power before the wind farm is built, helping the developer get a better interest rate for the financing of the plant. Then Google can sell the power from the wind farm on the whole sale market (it recently got its subsidiary Google Energy approved to buy and sell energy) until one of its data center power contracts expires and Google can use the wind power more directly, like negotiating with the local utility to resell it to them.

Google’s move might be a small and experimental step, but it also could be a smart economical one. According to estimates from a report from MIT and Carnegie Mellon, Google has been spending about $38 million annually on electricity for data centers. They can expect that cost — and the associated energy use — to rise as Google’s mobile web reach expands, and more people in the world connect to the Internet and use Google search. Utility wind contracts can actually be pretty cheap if you find the right location and utility — potentially six cents a kilowatt-hour for a 20-year contract. That price could be a hedge against a future rise in energy prices, particularly if a cap-and-trade system ever gets passed in the U.S. that would cause the price of coal and natural gas generated electricity to go up.

So, I’m not expecting Facebook to wean off coal completely, but they can do something. As Greenpeace’s executive director Kumi Naidoo puts it in the letter Wednesday morning:

Your company has an increasingly essential role to play in helping to drive the deployment of renewable energy sources needed to avert the most devastating possible effects of our changing climate.

To read more on the real reason Google bought wind power, check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

The Real Reason Google Is Buying Wind Power

Image courtesy of Deneyterrio