BY BRIAN LIBBY
Earlier this month, a potentially inspiring and innovative sustainable building project in eastern Oregon received criticism because of the coal plant from which its otherwise efficiently used power is drawn.
The new Facebook data center in Prineville, Oregon is a boon to that small town's local economy. It's also impressively innovative in its use of less energy. Facebook's team designed stripped-down servers that are 38 percent more efficient and 24 percent cheaper than those sold by major server makers. And the data center itself, expected to open next month, is being cooled entirely with air, helping to reduce both its energy bills and carbon footprint. What's more, Facebook is sharing these innovations with its industry competitors rather than acting in the exceedingly protective, proprietary manner that is the norm with data center.
“We are not the only ones who need the kind of hardware that we are building out,” said Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, as quoted in a New York Times piece by Miguel Helft. By sharing the company’s designs, Zuckerberg explained, Facebook would benefit because as more companies adopt those designs, the cost of the custom servers would decline.
Yet Facebook has received nearly as much criticism as praise for the Prineville data center. The reason? The majority of Prineville's electricity, like that of Oregon in general, is generated by coal. Facebook is also building a data center in North Carolina, where the local utility relies heavily on coal and nuclear power, and has received criticism for that siting decision as well.
“If Facebook wants to be a truly green company, it needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions,” Casey Harrell, climate campaigner at Greenpeace, said in the Times story. “The way to do that is decouple its growth from its emissions footprint by using clean, renewable energy to power its business instead of dirty coal and dangerous nuclear power.”
Let's pause for a moment and imagine that we don't care about the environmental impact of tons of toxic coal emissions being spewed into the Pacific Northwest's atmosphere. Even the most cynical skeptic about the Boardman coal plant's environmental degradation, however, might stop to consider that Boardman is also polluting the economic environment.
Granted, Facebook located in Prineville despite the criticisms about Boardman coal. But that's not to say the next big company won't think twice. What business investment are we losing by hitching our energy needs to coal? What corporate headquarters relocation, or new factory, might be avoiding Oregon because of coal?
Now let's turn the argument around and suppose for a moment that the economic argument doesn't sway you. Facebook still came to Prinville, after all. Every region has its drawbacks, be it coal in Oregon or urban decay in Detroit or violent reactionaries in Arizona. But what if it is a roll of the dice away from giving your kid a birth defect?
Studies have shown that one in six women in the United States of childbearing are age has enough mercury in her body to put her child at risk of learning disabilities, developmental disorders, and a lower IQ if she becomes pregnant.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an average coal fire plant in one year produces 3,700,000 tons of CO2 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide, 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, 720 tons of carbon monoxide, and 170 pounds of mercury.
The Boardman plant was authorized in 1975, just two years before the 1977 Clean Air Act amendments, which would have required the plant to meet stricter emission standards. The plant currently accounts for 65% of stationary SO2 emissions, 35% of NOx emissions, and 7% of CO2 emissions in Oregon
Things could be changing one way or another. On March 16, the EPA proposed to update clean air standards to protect public health by stopping coal-fired power plants from spewing toxic pollution like mercury, lead, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases into our air and water on a three-year schedule. The proposed rule would save an estimated 17,000 lives every year nationally and will cut mercury and acid gases by 91 percent once the industries comply.
The EPA is now collecting comments to gauge public support for finalizing the rule. But utility executives are already fighting the update. They say it is not enough time for companies to adjust to the complex regulations. As reported today by Reuters' Ayesha Rascoe, Republicans in the House of Representatives said this week that they plan to introduce legislation that would delay the implementation of the toxic pollution rules for utilities, as well as those for boilers and cement plants.
Meanwhile, as reported by McClatchy Newspapers and others, the EPA also this week announced a settlement with another coal-polluting utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority over pollution from 11 coal-fired power plants in at least three states.
The agreement, which addresses violations of the Clean Air Act at plants in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee, requires the TVA to invest an estimated $3-5 billion on new and upgraded pollution controls. It must close at least 18 of its 59 coal-fired boilers and install emission-control equipment on almost all the remaining plants. TVA also agreed to invest $350 million for clean energy projects to reduce pollution, save energy and protect public health. The 11 plants provide power to roughly 9 million people in Alabama, and parts of Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service will also receive $1 million to "improve, protect or rehabilitate forest and park lands that have been impacted by emissions" from TVA's plants.
If the Boardman plant doesn't shut soon, Portland General Electric could be facing similar legislative action.
Portland General Electric's original plan involved operating the plant until 2040; this would have required installing over $500 million of pollution control equipment on the plant by 2017 in order to comply with federal and state clean air standards. In April 2010, PGE decided to close the plant in 2020 to save $470 million in upgrades they would have been required to install had they kept the plant operating until 2040. In December 2010, the state's environmental protection agency approved the plans for the 2020 closing. But that still means nine more years of pollution.
The plan approved by the EQC includes an option for Boardman to close in early 2016 with even fewer pollution controls if PGE chooses. But will they ever choose that?
The Sierra Club is among environmental groups suing PGE, charging that it should have installed a full suite of pollution controls when the plant opened. That lawsuit could force PGE to close Boardman earlier, as could the EPA's proposed new pollution regulations and an Environmental Protection Agency violation issued this fall that accused PGE of operating the plant without adequate controls since 1998.
But even if the lawsuit fails, the case of Facebook's data center is a wake-up call. It's not PGE that is hurt by companies deciding to locate in Oregon or elsewhere based on coal emissions. Facebook decided to come here anyway, but they have not necessarily blazed a trail for others to follow, at least not until the good of a more efficient data center is no longer offset by the black soot coming from down the road.