Facebook Sustainability Director Bill Weihl, who trained as a computer scientist, electrical engineer, and mathematician, spent the first 15 years of his career in academia and research before he moved into business. More than a decade ago, he decided to focus professionally on climate change and sustainability, and he has been doing that ever since, first at Google and now at Facebook.

He spoke with us about Facebook’s focus on procuring clean energy for its data centers and how the unusual level of collaboration within the Future of Internet Power is helping all partners move faster.

Eva Dienel: What are Facebook’s top sustainability priorities for the year?

Bill Weihl: Our biggest sustainability issue revolves around energy. We are expanding our footprint to help serve the growing community of people using Facebook, Instagram, and other services, and that requires significant computing power, and those computers require energy.

Six or seven years ago, we decided to focus on energy efficiency as a place where we could make the most difference, and we started designing our own servers and data centers. We also openly share those designs, and are now collaborating with hundreds of other companies on cheaper, more efficient computing gear.

Several years ago, we turned our attention to where our energy comes from. In the middle of 2012, we set a goal to have 25 percent of energy mix come from clean energy sources in 2015. We surpassed that number, and in the middle of last year, we set a new goal to have 50 percent clean energy in 2018. That is not a slam-dunk—it’s a stretch—and we like to set stretch goals.

Related to that, we recognize it’s not just about our own footprint. If we are going to address problems like climate change, it really is about transforming the grid and shifting the electrical infrastructure to clean sources—not just for us. We have renewable energy goals, other companies have them or can be encouraged to set them, and we’d like to make it possible for all of us to meet those goals more easily and cheaply and have policies that enable us to do that.

Dienel: Tell me about your approach—what are you doing to meet your goals?

Weihl: In terms of operations, there are two things: First, access to affordable clean energy is one of the key criteria we use in choosing where to put a data center. For new data centers, we expect to have a clean energy solution for it, and as we build new facilities at existing sites, we are expanding clean energy solutions.

One of the key principles we try to adhere to is “additionality,” which means that our purchase of clean energy results in additional clean energy being added to the grid. It goes beyond business as usual.

Dienel: One of the challenges in procuring renewable energy for a utility grid is the upfront cost of developing the project. How do you support those projects?

Weihl: We want to engage in contracts that will help drive supply. One way to do that is to sign a long-term power-purchase agreement and commit to some period of time. What does a project developer need to go to the bank and get financing? If they have a long-term commitment from a credit-worthy customer, they can go to the bank and say, “My revenue is guaranteed for the next 10 or 20 years.” That allows them to get the financing they need to build that wind farm or get the capital to build the next one.                                                                                                                 

Dienel: How is your partnership with BSR’s Future of Internet Power initiative helping Facebook meet its goals?

Weihl: We have set goals around our own energy mix, and we have also set a goal to play a role in scaling voluntary purchases, and that means collaborating with others: getting together to figure out the obstacles that make it hard for companies and defining what we can do to tear down those obstacles.

The BSR Future of Internet Power initiative has been critical in bringing some of the data center companies to the table and educating them on what is possible, which has resulted in them making commitments and doing significant deals. We have also all learned from each other on what has worked—and that has allowed us all to move faster.

BSR has also been collaborating quite closely with other initiatives—the Corporate Renewable Energy Buyers Principles and also the Business Renewables Center—and this level of coordination and collaboration is unusual. It has resulted in us having far more impact than any initiative would have on its own. 

 

This blog is one in a series highlighting BSR members and their sustainability stories. To learn more about BSR membership, please contact memberservices@bsr.org, visit the BSR Membership webpage, or join the conversation at #BSRmember.