Q&A: Facebook reaches 75% renewable energy

Facebook has reached an important milestone toward our goal of using 100 percent renewable energy to support our products and services. Solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources now supply 75 percent of the power used to operate Facebook, and we are on track to hit our goal of 100 percent in 2020. Bobby Hollis, Director of Global Energy, Environment, and Site Selection, sat down to discuss how we got to this point, what's needed to reach 100 percent, how these efforts will help combat climate change, and more.

Recommended Reading

Facebook was named the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in 2018. What was the key to accomplishing this?

Bobby Hollis: We are incredibly proud of this achievement. It required a lot of work with utilities, developers, local officials, and so many partner teams within Facebook. In 2018 alone, we were actively procuring renewable energy for eight data centers across three continents, and each renewable energy project helps to reduce Facebook's greenhouse gas emissions overall.

Powering a fast-growing global community with billions of users is complex, so one of the biggest things has been to start planning early and to partner closely with all of the other internal teams that are helping to analyze our growth. Each data center we build needs a unique energy plan that accounts for factors such as its specific power needs, existing local infrastructure, community input, weather, and natural resources. We usually sign commitments for new renewable energy resources at least two years before our data center is fully operational. This means that we start very early to look for renewable energy partners in the states we select for new data centers.

Facebook has signed contracts for 2 gigawatts of solar energy and 1.5 gigawatts of wind energy.

What have been the biggest challenges as your team works toward supporting all of Facebook operations with renewable energy?

BH: One of our biggest challenges has been the nature of the energy sector in general. Electric utilities' traditional business model hasn't typically allowed customers to pick where their energy comes from. Our team pulled upon its collective experience to help show how utility companies can enable customers to choose renewable energy without increasing costs to others. Adding renewable energy can often reduce these costs, actually. We seek out utilities who want to work with their customers and design new options for the 21st century that will help to increase adoption of renewable energy and reduce fossil fuel reliance. Facebook has led the charge to change the approach to renewable energy in over a dozen states, working with utility partners to design and adopt new choices for renewable energy for their customers.

Also, we pride ourselves on holding a very high bar for how we add renewable energy, bringing new resources to the same grid — usually the same state — as our data centers. So that's meant we've had to make sure energy planning plays a central part when we're selecting new sites for our facilities.

The biggest benefit of this shift to renewable energy is the broader impact on the environment and climate change. Are there other benefits as well?

BH: Beyond helping Facebook reduce emissions and fight climate change, a major benefit is the job creation and economic development associated with building new renewable energy projects. Because we focus on building new renewable energy projects in the same state or on the same electrical grid where our data centers are located, there are many additional construction and operations jobs being created in those regions. For example, in New Mexico, we've signed contracts for six new projects that will result in 1,300 jobs throughout the state.

An aerial view of Facebook's Menlo Park, California, headquarters shows some of the facility's rooftop solar arrays.

What can other companies learn from Facebook's efforts?

BH: We are fortunate at Facebook to have leadership that is strongly committed to our renewable energy goals. The advice we would share is first, don't give up, and second, work to make sure your entire organization is on board. It takes time and hard work to help everyone around you overcome preconceptions about renewable energy that aren't necessarily true.

We also work to ensure other companies can leverage our work in this field. For example, we developed new green tariffs, which essentially are mechanisms for customers to buy green power where you couldn't previously. In six states, Facebook has partnered with utilities and local stakeholders to develop and implement new green tariffs. We've been happy to see other companies have used these same tariffs to source their own green energy, and other states and utilities have used our model to attract business all across the country.

What have you learned since Facebook made this commitment?

BH: Back in 2011, Facebook became one of the first tech companies to publicly commit to becoming 100 percent supported by renewable energy. That was a lifetime ago for our company, and we had no idea how fast we'd grow. We knew we had to build a deep bench of expertise to make this a reality. We then let our team do what it does best: partner with others to develop a new way of doing business in the energy sector. We sought out renewable developers and utilities that were also willing to explore innovative solutions. One thing we have learned is that for every time someone said that it can't be done, we've embraced the challenge and found a way. The greatest example of this effort was breaking through for our Georgia data center, where we helped jump-start the solar energy market. We focused on finding alternative solutions and new partners that were committed to helping us access that market, and we are now one of the largest purchasers of renewable energy in Georgia.

What part of this project are you proudest of?

BH: While we are very excited about meeting our own goals, our team is most proud of how Facebook is moving markets to embrace renewable energy. We're proud to see other companies use our green tariff approach to meet their own energy needs. We've watched utilities, like in Nebraska, be surprised by the pricing for renewable energy and adopt new strategies to incorporate more renewable energy for their entire customer population. We've watched utilities we haven't even worked with yet see the business opportunity they're missing and adopt new options for customer choice, as recently occurred in Georgia. We're also excited to help jump-start renewable energy efforts in areas where it hadn't been a major focus. For example, when we announced our solar projects with Tennessee Valley Authority to support our Huntsville Data Center, they were the largest solar projects ever contracted in Tennessee and Alabama. And our effort to create a green tariff with TVA allowed many other companies to follow our lead.

When other companies reach out to us to understand how we're undertaking our renewable strategy, we gladly take the time to show our playbook. This isn't a competitive secret, but an invitation for everyone to join us. We want nothing more than to see everyone make a renewable commitment as strong as ours. It's one of the core values that we start with when we kick off discussions with utilities: We want to create solutions that other customers are able to use, too. We seize on opportunities to share, which is why we were founding members of the Renewable Energy Buyers Association, a forum for companies to share ideas and learn from one another as to how to make renewable energy buying easier. By confronting the challenge of climate change with renewable purchasing, we're able to truly move the market in an important positive direction.

What are some of the biggest remaining challenges to getting to 100 percent? How do you plan to tackle them?

BH: Renewable energy projects require a lot of work from a lot of people — the developer, the host utility, the construction team, and the local community — so that's a huge team that has to come together to ensure that the project can be completed to meet our renewable goals. At the same time, Facebook's infrastructure is continuing to grow, and the challenge will be to continue to stay ahead of this growth as these renewable energy resources are being completed. We have a plan, but we need to make sure we continue to execute at a high level.

Some of Facebook's data centers are supported by wind turbines with blades almost big enough to cover a football field.

How will you feel on the day you log into a Facebook app or service that's 100 percent supported by renewable energy? What will that moment mean to you?

BH: Facebook has been at the forefront of renewable energy commitments. In fact, it's what brought many of us here. This is something we believe strongly in, and we know that it's a global challenge in which we have an important role to play. As Facebook has expanded and grown — with WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger, and so many other tools — the challenge to get to 100 percent renewable energy has also expanded and grown. We've never been willing to let this growth be a limit to our commitment. In fact, we feel strongly about maintaining our industry-leading standards around how and where we procure renewable energy, making sure that our renewable projects serve our data centers and also their communities. Our community commitment and unwillingness to fail are core Facebook values that we deploy at every step of our energy journey. There may be bumps along the way, but our team has constantly doubled down to overcome new challenges. It's exciting to be part of a company that's creating products used by billions of people and equally exciting to know that our company has matched that growth with a commitment to making renewable energy and sustainable growth a requirement for how we do it. For me, achieving this commitment is a testament to technology's power to be a positive force in the world.