It's in the Perks: The Energy Behind Facebook's On-Campus Amenities

EDF Climate Corps fellow | September 13, 2011

By: Naveen Lakshmipathy, 2011 EDF Climate Corps fellow at Facebook, MBA/MS Candidate at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business 

Facebook offers some fabulous amenities to its employees.  These perks include cafeterias that serve three meals a day and a robust transportation program that keeps a large and ever-growing percentage of employees out of their cars.  The company is planning even more offerings, including a state-of-the-art fitness center and additional food options, as it moves to its expansive new campus in Menlo Park, CA.  These amenities keep employees happy and healthy, and help make their lives easier by reducing the need to run errands throughout the workday.

Food is Energy

I am one of a team of three EDF Climate Corps fellows at Facebook this summer, working to make a business case for investments in energy efficiency.  Given the important role that amenities play in Facebook's corporate culture, our team was excited to take on the task of examining how these services could be more energy-efficient.  The place to start was clear: food.  It is easy to see (and taste) why food service is so highly valued by Facebook employees. Facebook's kitchens—and the professionalism of its culinary staff—are a sight to behold.  I marvel every day at how a handful of individuals in tiny quarters can prepare thousands of delicious multi-course meals each day.  Looking inside the kitchen at mealtimes, I always see a well-oiled machine in which everyone knows their role, appearing to shift effortlessly from chopping and sautéing to serving and cleaning without taking even a second to think.  Despite our lack of prior knowledge about large-scale food service operations, we knew it would be important that any change in the name of energy efficiency would not disrupt this impressive dynamic.

Ask for Help

We decided to invite Todd Bell, an expert from PG&E's Food Service Technology Center, to visit our cafeterias in order to provide practical and economical energy efficiency recommendations.  His first observation was that almost all of Facebook's kitchen appliances were relatively new and Energy Star certified, and thus were already quite energy efficient.  He did, however, identify a few high-impact areas for improvement that would not only promote energy efficiency, but would likely even improve the operating environment of the kitchen.

The most significant of these recommendations involved the kitchen's exhaust ventilation technology.  Commercial kitchens, like home kitchens, have exhaust hoods that draw out hot air and smoke during the cooking process.  In commercial kitchens, these hoods have powerful, noisy, energy-sucking fans and motors.  By law, exhaust hoods must be kept on whenever any food is being prepared.  In the case of Facebook's kitchens, this is over 20 hours a day.  Unfortunately, almost all standard kitchen hoods have only one setting, running at full power no matter how much heat and smoke are actually being produced.  A technology called demand ventilation changes this.  Demand ventilation systems, which can be retrofitted onto existing hoods, incorporate temperature and smoke sensors with variable frequency drives (VFDs) that allow exhaust hoods to automatically operate at different speeds and power levels depending on actual temperature and smoke levels.  Given the intensive use of the exhaust hoods in Facebook's kitchens, this technology has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of kilowatt-hours of electricity each year, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in energy cost savings.  More important, perhaps, is the potential effect on the kitchen environment.  Demand ventilation is praised by professional chefs who benefit from the technology's ability reduce noise in the kitchen environment while preserving indoor air quality.  Current utility subsidies make installation of the technology a no-brainer for many commercial kitchens.

Working it Out

We found another opportunity to promote energy efficiency in Facebook's new employee fitness center.  In many fitness centers, cardio equipment and entertainment displays stay on at night, drawing phantom power even while not in use. We are working with the management company and facilities staff to create a procedure for automatic or manual power-down of equipment during off hours.

As Facebook's campus in Menlo Park continues to develop and new on-campus amenities come online, it will be important to continually examine how to make these services as energy efficient as possible. As it does with other sustainability choices, we are encouraging Facebook to analyze the full life-cycle impact of choices related to amenities.  For example, what is the comparative environmental impact of washing fitness center towels in-house versus outsourcing the service to a centralized laundry facility?  Thoroughly analyzing choices like this will help give the company a fuller and ultimately more realistic understanding of its environmental impact.

EDF Climate Corps matches trained students from leading business schools with companies to develop practical, actionable energy efficiency plans. Sign up to receive emails about EDF Climate Corps, including regular blog posts by our fellows. You can also visit our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter to get regular updates about this project.