It’s a clash of the titans. The world’s largest environmental group, Greenpeace, is taking on the world’s largest social networking site, Facebook, in a PR battle royale to pressure the group into switching from coal to renewable power.

In late January, Facebook announced it was breaking ground on a custom data center in Prineville, Ore.

Greenpeace learned from that Prineville’s energy provider, PacifiCorp, was largely powered by coal, and in response launched a public relations offensive, replete with a protest Facebook group (in a twist of meta-irony) which has gathered more than 130,000 users in a few weeks.

“Facebook should be run on 100 percent renewable energy,” the group said. “Facebook should change the terms of its power purchase agreement with PacifiCorp so that it is powered with renewables before the Oregon data centre goes online.”

Subsequently, discovered that Greenpeace isn’t so innocent either. Its own data centers also use coal.

Why did Facebook choose this location in Oregon?

“Basically, there was a big boom of data center construction along the I-84 corridor a few years back, with companies taking advantage of the BPA [Bonneville Power Administration]’s cheap hydropower that had previously gone to the aluminum business,” according to Matt Stansberry, an Oregonian from SearchDataCenter who helped break the Facebook data center news.

“The biggest story of that time was the Google data center in the Dalles, but a lot of high-profile facilities went in on the Oregon and Washington sides, and cheap power was the primary driver,” he added.

Stansberry says Facebook probably started looking at the Pacific Northwest after it was too late to get in on the cheap hydropower.

“The biggest news in my opinion wasn’t that Facebook chose coal. It’s that the Columbia dams are running out of excess capacity and the BPA has to actually buy power on the utility market to meet customers' needs during times of high demand. Which is why they are implementing tiered (higher) rates for new customers and customers that expand — the BPA is taking a loss selling the power it buys from other utilities,” he said.

With all the attention directed to Facebook, other popular Web sites have avoided scrutiny of their own data centers. Greenpeace has championed Yahoo!’s Buffalo-based data center which runs on hydropower as a model for Facebook. Hydro also is the energy source for Google and Microsoft’s Pacific Northwest data centers, and Stansberry notes that it has had severe negative effects on the area’s salmon populations.

“[It has] driven several strains of Pacific salmon to extinction,” Stansberry said. “The Columbia/Snake River produced the most prolific and genetically critical salmonids in North America. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of these fish to the survival of all Pacific salmon.”

How easy is it for Facebook to switch to renewable power as Greenpeace has advocated?

“It’s an idealistic position,” said Rakesh Kumar, vice president of Gartner, an IT research firm. “There are many things that make a D/C [data center] green. For example they may reduce the amount of energy used for cooling. This will also reduce their CO2 emissions. Alternatively, they may use alternative sources of energy such as solar or geothermal. They may also recycle the heat they produce. And finally, they can do a lot with the servers and hardware like virtualization. I think Greenpeace’s position is admirable but not realistic at the moment.”

Other green IT experts feel Greenpeace’s criticism is misdirected. “Why is Greenpeace calling out Facebook and ignoring Google? It’s a situation of convenience as Facebook is very big and very consumer-oriented,” said Greg Schulz, green IT specialist and author of The Green and Virtual Data Center. “The poster child for inefficiency is Google. Facebook requires less resources per pages displayed.”

Google disputes the inefficiency of its data centers and has promised to work hard on lessening its IT carbon footprint.

“We're working to develop utility scale renewable energy cheaper than coal,” said Google spokeswoman Emily Wood.

Microsoft also responded that it is focused on increasing IT sustainability.

“Microsoft is committed to integrating the latest innovations in technology and building techniques to maximize efficiencies and utilize alternative energy sources when and where possible to improve our power usage effectiveness [PUE] and reduce carbon wastes,” said Microsoft spokeswoman Sara Anissipour. “As updated technology and techniques are developed, we continue to make adjustments to our existing and new facilities, as well as our computing processes, to continue to improve our effectiveness.”

Meanwhile, in the midst of the Greenpeace-Facebook data center brouhaha, the carbon footprint of the global IT industry continues to grow. A recent McKinsey report predicts that data center emissions will overtake those of the world's airlines by 2020. It is growing apparent that whatever Facebook decides to do, the fate of the planet hangs in the balance.

Thumbnail photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images