Net Environmental Benefit (NEB); A Data Center Metric to Satisfy Greenpeace

Environmentalists crack me up.  I dated one once when I was in the Navy.  I’ll call her Mary for the purposes of this story.   One evening during our brief relationship, I was telling Mary some (unclassified) stories about submarine life.  I casually mentioned that we spend a lot of time shooting sea slugs for practice.  Mary was shocked and appalled. 

For those of you unfamiliar with subs, when you test torpedo firing systems on a fast attack you fill the torpedo tubes with seawater and fire the “slug” of water as if it were an actual torpedo.  It’s a good simulation and completely harmless.  However, in Mary’s imagination, we were prowling the ocean floor, hunting unwary sea slugs and blowing them into watery oblivion. I probably should have corrected Mary’s thinking but it was too much fun watching her agonize over the harmless sea creatures we were cruelly using for target practice.

That should be the end of the story…but it’s not.  Mary and I broke up after a few weeks.  She didn’t seem to take it too badly at the time.  But, the next time our crew returned to port, we found flyers under the windshield wipers on every car in long term parking.  The flyers pleaded in bold letters, “Save the Sea Slugs!” and went on to describe the Navy’s cruel vendetta against harmless marine animals.  The flyer demanded that naval officials cease the caviler and unnecessary destruction of sea life.  Oh my, how we laughed!

I hoped that I was done with this type of nonsense when I left the Navy and entered the data center industry.  No such luck.  Environmentalist juggernaut Greenpeace has been after Facebook for building data centers in areas where the percentage of electricity generated by coal is too high for their tastes.  Greenpeace rallied over 180,000 followers to their “Unfriend Coal” campaign.  Never mind that Facebook’s data centers are among the most energy efficient and environmentally sustainable buildings ever built.  Never mind that Facebook has shared every efficiency strategy that they employed through the Open Compute project. As a result of Open Compute, the entire data center industry has been able to achieve a more efficient posture.

Facebook has not been the only data center to draw fire from Greenpeace.  Greenpeace has also targeted Apple’s data centers.  Never mind that the Apple data centers are marvels of energy efficiency and sustainable design.  Never mind that Apple is building the largest end user owned solar array in the country at their Maiden, NC data center.  Never mind that Apple is also building the largest biogas/fuel cell installation (outside of utility) in the US at the same data center.  The commitment to the development of green/alternative energy technology demonstrated by Apple is unparalleled.   

In Greenpeace’s misguided and myopic view, data centers consume large amounts of electricity and are therefore bad.  The reality is that these facilities are on the bleeding edge of energy conservation and sustainable design.  These data center are monuments to the fact that the companies that built them and the data center industry as a whole cares deeply about conservation is actively advancing building efficiency to staggering new levels.    

Greenpeace is also missing the big picture at an even more profound level.  Environmentalists should actually applaud the construction of data centers.  Here’s why; data centers are built and applied to existing business models because data center technology provides a business delivery efficiency improvement over the previous business paradigm.  These improvements in business delivery efficiency (usually) result in a net environmental benefit. 

For example; Facebook builds a bunch of data centers and suddenly 800M people share 60B photos online.  As a result, the kiosks, drug stores and grocery stores that used to process film and print photos on paper see that business almost completely disappear.  The home photo printer industry also flattens and begins to decline.  That’s a massive business delivery paradigm shift.  Digital photo sharing on this scale is only possible by applying data center technology.  Now, imagine the net environmental impact of all of those people NOT driving their film or memory card to the store, NOT consuming photo developing chemicals, NOT mailing pictures to relatives, NOT purchasing replacement ink for their printers.  How many miles were not driven?  How many toxic chemical not used?

Amazon is another great example.  Brick and mortar book stores and print media in general are in decline.  Amazon built a more efficient business model to deliver that content to readers.  That business model was enabled by the application of data center technology.  Again, how many miles to the book store were NOT travelled?  How many buildings NOT constructed?  How many trees were NOT felled for their paper?

Both of these examples only scratch the surface of the net environmental benefit enabled by data center technology.

What the data center industry (and the companies that use the technology) need is a new metric.  I’ll call it Net Environmental Benefit (NEB).  NEB will encompass all of the benefits that are enabled by data centers and boil it down to handy three digit integer in units of megatons of carbon.  It will be a bear to calculate but next time the Greenpeace nitwits start protesting, Facebook can roll out its astronomical NEB and squash them with it.