Coal-powered cloud

When we share a link, a photo, a video, or too much information about our significant other through social networks like Facebook and Twitter, they go into … da, da, DA! … the cloud. That cloud is a mass of data stored and shared from huge servers across the country. Jennifer Grayson, Huffington Post’s “Miss Eco Etiquette,” was asked by a reader whether, given the vast amounts of energy needed to power such interactions, deleting a Facebook account would be the eco-friendly thing to do.

Examining the question in her Jan. 6 column, she says the issue has to do with the type of energy being used by these servers. Facebook’s servers in Prineville, Ore., and Forest City, N.C., are primarily coal-powered, though Prineville’s facility is expected to be LEED-certified.

“Building a ‘green’ data center around a dirty source of fuel is kind of like fueling a calorie-restricted diet with McDonald’s,” writes Grayson.

She reports that data centers in the United States spend over $7 billion a year in electricity, and Greenpeace estimates these centers will triple their energy consumption in the next 10 years, using more electricity than France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined.

Grayson concludes that deleting your Facebook account in the name of the environment is futile. That’s because Facebook isn’t alone. You’d have to stop using email, stop streaming movies from Netflix, stop sharing photos, stop YouTubing, stop tweeting, stop doing what has become unstoppable. The better answer, she says, is for consumers to encourage these companies to power data centers with as much clean energy as possible, and to pressure the federal government to decrease or stop subsidies for coal and other fossil fuels. Google and Yahoo, for instance, get much of their energy from hydropower sources. Also, the more utility companies include renewable energy sources in their mix, the more will be used to power the blender making your smoothie—and your post to 300 friends that you made one.