They call it a “server farm,” but Old McDonald would never recognize it: acres and acres of tall racks full of high-speed computers, humming away 24/7 so that you can upload a picture of your new puppy to Facebook or download the latest Rihanna album from iTunes.It’s truly a marvel of modern technology, but it comes at a high environmental price: Server farms are energy hogs. Despite significant advances in efficiency, all those computers suck up a hell of a lot of power – not to mention the power needed to keep the building cool so they don’t overheat.
And in most of the United States (including the Pacific Northwest, despite its relative abundance of hydroelectric power) most or all of that power is going to be generated by burning coal. That means spewing tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to the greenhouse effect and accelerates global warming.
In what has been regarded as an economic development coup for Central Oregon, first Facebook and then Apple have decided to build server farms – or “data centers,” as they prefer to call them – in Prineville. The location was chosen partly because of the city’s cool climate, which is expected to help keep the air conditioning bills down.
Still, these mammoth installations (the Facebook center covers 300,000 square feet; the size of Apple’s has yet to be announced, but probably will be comparable) will be heavy energy consumers. The Apple center is estimated to need 31 megawatts – enough power to run five cities the size of Prineville (population 9,300).
Which is why it was good to hear Apple announce recently that its Prineville center will be 100 percent powered by “green” energy. The company is already busy installing solar panels at its 160-acre site in Prineville.
The Prineville decision is part of a new corporate policy by Apple to make its data centers more environment-friendly. It’s building a solar panel array and biogas fuel cell plant for its 500,000-square-foot data center in Maiden, N.C., and promises that facility also will be powered entirely by renewable energy by the end of this year.
For the record, it has to be said that Apple didn’t decide to go green completely on its own. It – and Facebook – have been under heavy pressure from Greenpeace and have been getting a lot of bad press for relying too much on coal and other fossil fuels to power their data centers.
In response to years of Greenpeace action, Facebook finally pledged to reduce its reliance on coal and promote green energy. But it has no timetable for doing that, and it still buys coal-generated power from PacifiCorp for its Prineville center. We’d like to see it follow Apple’s lead and set a deadline to make its Prineville facility 100% renewable too.
As for Apple, although it took a little – well, make that a lot – of prodding, it ultimately made the right choice. So we’re giving a GLASS SLIPPER to it and half a slipper to Facebook. Let’s see if it can earn the other half.