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Published on 14th November 2013 by Yevgeniy Sverdlik
Gary Cook, senior IT policy analyst at Greenpeace, speaking at the organization's Greening the Internet forum in San Francisco in November 2013
The uneasiness that set in during what had been a fairly plain-vanilla panel discussion even after the moderator cut the audience member who had asked the uncomfortable question off lingered for a while. He had confronted the men who make corporate sustainability and energy procurement decisions for Facebook and Google, respectively, about the two companies' membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council.
The context may not have been perfect and the men on stage may not have been the right guys to ask. But that doesn't matter. The question was rhetorical. It was an appropriate point to make in a forum where Greenpeace and the poster children of the “power-hungry internet” – the coal-energy-gobbling poster children of Greenpeace's own making – gathered to display their recently forged partnership in the struggle to make sure the data center infrastructure of the future is built to consume renewable energy.
The question was simple but loaded. To summarize (with some details added for context): Why have Google and Facebook, who are loudly broadcasting their efforts to clean up the fuel mix that powers their operations in the name of environmental responsibility, joined ALEC, the powerful right-wing lobbying organization that denies that climate change is real and pushes state legislation to teach that in schools, among its many projects?
This was a mini-conference organized by Greenpeace and GigaOm, where data center infrastructure, energy procurement and corporate sustainability folks from Box and Rackspace, in addition to the two companies mentioned above, summarized their steps toward a future of carbon-neutral operations.
Weihl: it has nothing to do with renewable energy bills
Of course Bill Weihl, manager of energy efficiency and sustainability at Facebook, couldn't answer the question (at least not publicly, while sitting on stage in front of an audience). Neither could Gary Demasi, who is responsible for Google's data center location strategy and energy.
Weihl said Facebook was not an advocacy organization that fought for a single issue. “We're a company,” he said. “We don't necessarily agree with everything that each of those organizations [other orgs Facebook participates in] says.” He said he wasn't sure why Facebook was an ALEC member. “It's certainly not because we want to oppose renewable energy legislation.”
GigaOm's Katie Fehrenbacher, who moderated the panel, cut the audience member off to move on to a more panelist-friendly topic as he tried to press Demasi for an answer.
ALEC membership is about blocking SLAPPs
The Daily Beast report that broke the story about the tech giants' participation in ALEC said they had jumped on board to seek help with banning Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). These are typically defamation lawsuits companies file against people who post bad reviews online. As The Beast explains, they generally do not succeed as lawsuits, but they do make it too hard and expensive for an individual to continue standing by a statement they have made online.
In addition to Google and Facebook, ALEC's communications and technology task force includes representatives from Microsoft, Yahoo! and Yelp, according to The Beast.
There wasn't much in terms of new information presented at the Greepeace event. Each company's rep described their strategies for becoming more efficient and pushing utilities to provide clean power. That is the difficult piece. Even if you are the almighty Google, large-capacity power contract negotiations are hard, since utilities are beholden to regulators and they do not have the agility to quickly adjust their fuel mix or rates.
Cleaning up colo power is a huge problem
It was good to hear from Andy Broer, senior manager of data center operations at Box, which has made a commitment to becoming 100% carbon neutral, but uses commercial colocation providers instead of building its own data centers. Colo customers have very little control over the fuel mix behind the electricity that powers their servers. This is a different situation from one of Google of Facebook, who decide where they build their data centers and use the availability of clean energy as a big deciding factor.
Box has made the commitment only recently and Broer does not really have a clear plan for reaching the goal at the moment. He did voice some ideas, such as getting together with other colo customers and demanding cleaner energy from the colo provider collectively.
While data center infrastructure of companies like Facebook and Google is massive and consumes massive amounts of energy, cleaning up just their fuel mix will not do the trick. Using the big internet companies' big names to draw attention to the issue is a good first step, but the fact is, most of the internet lives in colocation data centers, and until providers like Equinix, Telx, Savvis or CyrusOne, among many others, come up with systematic plans to clean up the fuel mix that powers their operations, the pressure on Facebook will make little difference.