In Huntsville, Alabama, a sprawling new data center under construction for Facebook will run on solar power from the local grid. In Luleå, Sweden, Facebook is expanding a data center that runs on hydroelectric power and uses frigid Arctic air to cool servers. In Papillon, Nebraska, another Facebook data center will run on power from a nearby wind farm, now under construction, with 101 massive wind turbines.
By 2020, Facebook plans to power its global operations with 100% renewable energy, and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 75%. It’s the next step in ramping up the company’s work to move to renewables over the last several years. “There’s the expectation that we have as a company that we think this is good for communities and this is good for the world as a whole, but it’s also good business sense,” says Bobby Hollis, the company’s head of global energy. “We really integrate this into our entire business planning process to make sure that we go into places where renewables make sense.”
In 2017, the company’s carbon footprint was 979,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent–roughly as much as the emissions from more than 100,000 homes, according to an EPA calculator. The company’s data centers, which were supporting the data of 2.1 billion people a month by the end of 2017, account for nearly two-thirds of that footprint (other business activities, including construction and employee commutes and travel, account for 38%).
Facebook started to move toward renewable energy when it signed its first contract to buy wind power in 2013, a few years after Google pioneered a new way for corporations to buy renewable energy from utilities. By 2017, Facebook was buying 51% renewable energy for its facilities. The company is behind others in the tech industry–Google reached a goal to buy 100% renewable electricity in 2017, and Apple made it to 100% earlier this year. But Facebook is on track to be one of the largest corporate buyers of renewable energy in 2018, a year when companies have signed deals for record amounts of clean power. As of early August, tech companies had purchased 1.8 gigawatts of clean energy, more than any other sector, and Facebook had purchased more than any other company.
One way the company buys renewable power is through agreements with local utilities called green tariffs, which allow companies to buy renewable energy on the local grid. “Other companies can join in on that option to create a new wind farm or solar farm,” says Lily Donge, a principal for the Business Renewables Center at the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute. “That greens the grid for the whole area.”
In each case, Facebook makes sure that the projects it supports are new and on the same grid as its data centers. “The straightforward way to look at it is: without Facebook’s participation, this project wouldn’t be happening,” says Hollis.
The work helps others also have access to clean energy. The green tariffs are often challenging to set up with utilities, but once they exist, other companies can follow to bring in additional new renewable power plants. “We’ve done that in six states,” Hollis says. “We’re one of the first companies to really make that a concerted effort and have had an incredible amount of success with it.”
Facebook works with smaller companies to help them also access renewable energy, and in some cases, brings other companies into its own deals. In the new Nebraska wind farm, it worked with Adobe to give it access to a small portion of the farm’s energy production to meet its own sustainability goals. The company is also helping push utilities to change; MidAmerican Energy, for example, is moving aggressively to incorporate more wind energy in part because of its work with Facebook.
Though the tech industry has led the shift to renewables, other companies are quickly following. “We see it across sectors because the costs for solar and wind have come down so remarkably,” says Donge.