The late Ed Koch, who served as mayor of New York City for multiple terms in the 1980s, was famous for asking, “How am I doing?” Extending the question to the impact of its operations on the health of the planet, eBay has developed a way to get an automatically updated response. And the online auction powerhouse hopes to encourage other businesses to ask the same question, too.
In March, eBay released Digital Service Efficiency
(DSE) -- http://dse.ebay.com/ -- a dashboard designed to reveal the company's datacenter energy efficiency in the style of a car’s MPG rating. The metric is based on “four key areas: performance, cost, environmental impact and revenue,” eBay said. Quarterly performance reports are measured against the yearly goals.
On May 24, eBay posted its first quarter results on its DSE blog. The numbers show the company is already increasing efficiency and decreasing carbon output. The blog said:
- "First, our transactions per kWh increased 18% year over year. The growth of eBay Marketplaces and continued focus on driving efficiencies have contributed to this increase.
- Second, our cost per transaction decreased by 23% in Q1 alone, already exceeding our initial goal.
- Third, our carbon per transaction showed a net decrease of 7% for the quarter."
The company's stated goal is to achieve a 10 percent carbon reduction this year; it accomplished 7 percent last quarter, a good first step, eBay said. “Recognizing that our dynamic infrastructure changes each quarter, we’re confident that we’re on track for our 10% net gain across performance, cost and environmental impact for the year.”
To reduce its carbon footprint, eBay created a solar-powered datacenter
in Utah. The Topaz solar array consists of 72,000 square feet of solar panels. It is expected to “produce 924,013 kilowatt hours (kWh) of clean electricity” each year, the company said. In environmental terms, that is the equivalent of “planting 136 acres of pine forests” or preventing “702 tons of greenhouse gas emissions” that would result from traditionally-fueled electricity. Combined with the solar arrays that eBay already uses, that will bring up its renewable energy capacity to almost 2 Megawatts, the company said.
Solar power is in use at eBay's headquarters and a Utah datacenter.
With eBay’s continued growth -- a 37 percent annual increase in the number of servers it uses -- the only way to prevent power consumption from growing at the same proportions is to come up with more efficient use. Since the corresponding increase in power amounted to “just 16% (2.69 MW),” eBay points to its most recent power-consumption figures as a sign of success in “efforts to run more energy efficient servers and facilities.”
While eBay wants to appear eco-friendly, it also wants to be smart about the bottom line. The company expects to recoup the cost of the solar-powered datacenter within four years as a result "of lower electricity bills, Federal stimulus dollars and tax incentives." This indicates the company will pursue green alternatives only when they fit in with the overall business goal of increased efficiency in terms of cost, as well as energy consumption.
However, some give eBay credit for DSE. Winston Saunders declared the dashboard a game-changer. “They have provided a role model, which is organized around common metric, to optimize the overall effectiveness of IT, and have openly disclosed the metrics and indicators they use to do it,” he wrote. The transparency also provides a “huge side benefit” for “eBay customers” who want to know the environmental impact of their online shopping.
Based on Saunders’ presentation, and some Wolfram Alpha calculations, eBay is better for the environment than conventional shopping, assuming the customer drives to the store. Whereas a single eBay transaction results in .05 ml of water consumption and 22 mg -- about the weight of a single grain of rice -- of CO2. In contrast, driving to a store five miles away results in 4.5 kg of CO2 emissions.
Based on those calculations, you could feel positively virtuous for ordering online, but not quite as virtuous as you could feel for walking or biking to the store for your purchases. Saunders’ comparison fails to take into account the environmental impact of shipping your item, likely over a distance that is far greater than 10-mile round trip. To truly come up with the purchasing choice that is kindest to the planet, you need all that information. As far as I see it, DSE does not include that part of the equation.
That is not to say it is worthless, though; far from it. With the rise of the Internet economy, many transactions are processed electronically, and we should realize that nothing is free -- even if we don’t get charged for it directly. We can all benefit from efficient uses and cleaner sources of electricity, and we should all ask “How are we doing?” in those terms.
— Ariella Brown is a freelance writer, editor, and social media consultant.