Facebook won’t force its belief in renewable energy on users

By Diarmaid Williams

Facebook’s head of sustainability says although the company believes strongly in renewable energy, it will not be changing its algorithm to force its pro-green principles on users.

The company is committed to investing in renewable power but has a pragmatic approach in how it squares its principles with its daily operations.
Bill Weihl, Sustainability chief at Facebook
Speaking to Power Engineering International on the fringes of the New York Times Energy for Tomorrow conference in Paris, Bill Weihl, Facebook’s Director of Sustainability said that while the company doesn’t directly work with on-site renewables, it’s position is to pay for green power to offset the energy it uses.

“For our data centres we are technology agnostic but bottom line what we need is reliable, cheap, clean power. The scale of our data centres means being off grid is hard. Imagine powering 100 per cent with solar off grid?”

Until a monumental storage breakthrough takes place the company has a definite strategy in how it plans to continue powering the world’s most successful online media platform.

“We need to be able to run 24/7 even if there’s a week of clouds ” so that makes the cost of the storage to do that prohibitive. We are typically grid connected and typically we like to put the renewable energy where it makes the most sense, not where the incentives are greatest or other reasons. We tend not to do much in the way of on-site power partly because the scale of the data centre is such that even if we cover the entire roof with solar panels we’d be lucky to get 1-2 per cent of the energy it requires.”

“In Ireland we have done 100 per cent wind power via a long term PPA, in Iowa we’ve gone for a 100 per cent new wind utility building to serve our operations and in Texas also 100 per cent wind.”

“While we don’t tend to talk about future projects, I can say we just broke ground on a New Mexico site, which is a 100 per cent renewable mix of wind and solar. We are open to different structures; it just depends on what makes sense in a given location.”

Later during a panel discussion it was put to Weihl that such was Facebook‘s global leverage that it could potentially change its algorithm, currently serving users content based on their browsing history, to also educate people about climate change.

Addressing what is referred to as the filter bubble, whereby users (for example who deny climate change) are served content to confirm their bias, Weihl was unequivocal on the company’s position ” Facebook will not be impressing on its audiences the content it believes users should be getting.

“That’s a very dangerous, slippery slope to start to go down in terms of imposing our views on what people see.”

“Belief in climate change is science and we believe in climate change. We are committed to working on it because it poses a threat to our future business and the global economy. On the question of what the right solution is – it’s a technical issue, it’s a political issue, an economic issue. It’s not just fact. We are very careful not to bias what you see in your newsfeed based on what we think the most important issues of the day are or what our beliefs are about what are the right answers to those questions. We rather serve you what you and your friends think is important.”

Weihl defended Facebook’s reputation in terms of the impact of the filter bubble, saying that in his experience it wasn’t the factor it is made out to be. It was also a place where groups who are promoting renewables and sustainability are facilitated.

“I think the filter bubble question is overrated. Certainly in terms of my own newsfeed I actually see a wider range of opinions than I get in my day to day interactions with people. I am friends with people on Facebook from across the political spectrum. We tend not to have those political discussions but I see what they are posting and it opens up my mind a bit to other points of view and hopefully I opens theirs a bit but maybe not, it’s hard to say.”

“The thing that we try to do is to make our platform useful and usable by organisations that have a mission to educate people about using renewables about the reality of climate change and the solutions involved.”

“In the modern world we have an issue where it’s become more partisan and more politicised. People have moved farther apart in the US for example. 30 Years ago the parties overlapped more, and each party was a much bigger tent than today. There is a filter bubble in society and you can debate how much social media has contributed to that but it’s an issue, and not just for climate.”

While Facebook will not then be venturing into the area of making its algorithm more virtuous, Weihl says there is another reason the company believes in renewables apart from moral responsibility “the bottom line.

“There has been a tipping point in the market for the last few years as the costs of wind and solar are cheaper than gas and coal in some places, it now makes sense for companies like ours to say we are buying renewables not just because it’s good for the environment, it’s good for our business.”

During a later Q&A session, Weihl did acknowledge a possibility that Facebook might change its modus operandi in a way that could benefit proponents of sustainability.

Facebook allows its users to report on inappropriate postings and Weihl appeared to open the door slightly that content such as climate change denial might be deemed inappropriate at some point.

“Climate is extremely important; it’s the issue of the day. Being able to flag factually incorrect content could be useful and a feature that people could find valuable. It could change people’s behaviour and it’s something worth thinking about and seeing some experiments on.”

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