Facebook unveils energy use, carbon emissions data

Using Facebook (s FB) actively for an entire year releases about the same amount of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere as drinking just one latte (mostly through the electricity consumed by Facebook’s servers). Yeah, that’s nothing, and shouldn’t scare off green-leaning, guilt-susceptible Facebookers (but maybe latte drinkers should think twice — the milk is the energy suck).

However, Facebook is becoming very serious about tracking data about the energy consumption and carbon emissions of its data centers and facilities, and on Wednesday unveiled detailed numbers about the use of these resources to the public. Facebook says in 2011 its data centers and operations used 532 million kilowatt hours of energy, and emitted 285,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent.

In addition, about 23 percent of the energy that Facebook’s facilities consumed in 2011 came from renewables, including hydro, solar and wind power, with most of the rest coming from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. (Everything you need to know about clean power and data centers is in this article.) Facebook is looking to source 25 percent of its energy for data centers from clean power by 2015, which is just slightly better than it is now, and shows how hard it is for data center operators to find cheap AND clean power.

In comparison, Google (s GOOG), which released similar data last year, consumed 2 billion kilowatt hours of energy in 2010, and is looking to have a third of its power from clean energy by 2012. An average American household in 2010 consumed about 11,496 kilowatt hours.

It should be noted that Google and Facebook are pioneering the trend of sharing this kind of data, and for a long time Internet giants insisted on keeping this data secret for competitive reasons (if you know how much energy their operations consume, you can basically guess how many servers they have).

Facebook’s data center in North Carolina

Why do we care

Why does Facebook — and likewise do we — care about energy numbers? For Facebook energy is an expense. It takes considerable energy to operate its data centers, so by monitoring energy use and pushing for energy efficiency measures, Facebook can curb a rising cost. Facebook’s energy use — and likewise carbon emissions — will only continue to grow as the social network giant gets bigger, brings in more users, and builds more data centers.

Carbon emissions are also a possible expense for Facebook down the road. The company is now public and carbon intensive resources could one day be seen as a risk for investors coupled with the right legislation (down the road in the U.S., but increasingly today in Europe). Facebook didn’t say it plans to be carbon neutral, but other Internet firms such as Google and Microsoft (s MSFT) are, and Facebook tells me being carbon neutral is something it could consider in the future.

Finally, tracking energy and carbon can also be powerful marketing and branding tools. Or put in a different way, not focusing on environmentalism could have some serious negative PR effects, like Facebook’s previous controversy with Greenpeace.

Greenpeace responded to today’s data disclosure announcement by saying: “Facebook has today set an important benchmark for the company to fulfill its goal to be fully powered by clean and renewable energy.”

Facebook’s unveiling of this data is also part of its overall push for more openness and transparency, which it kicked off with its Open Compute project last year. Facebook’s energy efficiency and sustainability team leader Bill Weihl — who originally helped Google whip its carbon emissions and energy footprint into shape — tells me that Facebook’s energy consumption figure would have been significantly higher were it not for the inherent efficiency measures designed into the Open Compute hardware Facebook has built.

By the way, Facebook is #11 on our paidContent 50 list, which ranks companies based on their digital media revenues.

For more info on this subject, check out my series on data centers and energy: