How Facebook could change the game for sustainability

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With Facebook’s 900 million monthly active users spending hours sharing, commenting on and “liking” photos, using apps, and connecting with friends, the social media giant has essentially the world’s biggest platform by which to influence its users. And the future of Facebook’s influence will increasingly be focused on sustainability, if the company’s new(ish) manager of energy efficiency and sustainability, Bill Weihl, has anything to say about it.

In an interview last month, Weihl told me that one of the reasons he joined Facebook from Google — where he was the search engine company’s Green Energy Czar — was because of the massive opportunity to help deliver sustainability through Facebook’s social platform. Over the next six to 12 months, we’ll increasingly connect with third party app developers that can help us deliver this goal, and “the potential there is just enormous.” said Weihl.

The first of these types of third party partnerships is a deal announced late last year with energy software company Opower. Opower created a Facebook application that enables users to check out their energy usage compared to friends and national averages, get energy efficiency tips and, down the road, play games that make energy savings competitive. The app was launched in April in beta with 16 utilities (representing 20 million h0useholds).

While there is plenty of this type of energy efficiency software out there, building an energy app on top of Facebook’s social platform has unique opportunities to change people’s behavior. Because the app can compare their energy usage to their actual friends, it “is much more personal and seems likely to help people pay attention more and make a change,” explained Weihl.

The open social graph could be a fundamental key to cracking the code for behavior change — everything from turning off lights, to lowering air conditioning to buying LEDs, to participating in utilities’ energy efficiency programs. People are influenced by a variety of things, explained Weihl, but most people can be covered under some combination of: saving money, competing with peers, and doing good. Beyond energy efficiency apps, Weihl says Facebook has been looking to work with developers building apps around things like recycling and electric cars.

In 2010, Facebook says it “woke up” to using its platform for sustainability, and increased those efforts in 2011. The company has been working with environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, and came to an agreement with Greenpeace last year to move up clean power on its list of criteria for siting where it builds data centers. Facebook also has an industry-leading project to open source the energy efficiency hardware for its data centers. However, the work with third parties around delivering sustainability apps for social good has been relatively modest at this point.

Weihl will also help Facebook monitor and manage its overall company energy usage and carbon emissions. Weihl also intends to help Facebook work with utilities to find more options for clean power for data centers.

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