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Greenpeace barely applauds Apple’s clean power data center plans

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Apple’s solar farm in Maiden, North Carolina

In an update to a controversial report, environmental activist group Greenpeace partly applauded Apple (s AAPL) for taking more steps to add clean power to its data center, yet also said Apple should both be more transparent about its plans and should also be doing more.

Back in April Greenpeace slammed Apple, giving it failing marks in its ranking system, for not considering clean power enough when deciding where to locate its data centers (for more on clean power and data centers, read this detailed feature on the controversial world of clean power and data centers). In that report Greenpeace gave Google(s GOOG), Yahoo(s YHOO) and Facebook(s FB) higher marks than Apple.

Yet since that report came out, Apple has announced some major new clean power data center initiatives. Apple has recently said it will double the size of the solar farm at its data center in North Carolina (from 20 MW to 40 MW), and that the entire facility will eventually be run by 100 percent clean power. Apple has also said that its data center in Oregon will be run off of 100 percent clean power, and that all of its data centers will be coal-free by 2013.

Workers building out the power lines around Apple’s data center

On the face of it, Apple’s steps are huge news in the world of data center operators, which for a long time have not been willing to pay a premium for clean power. Instead, most data center builders seek out locations that have cheap (and often times coal-based) power — like North Carolina, which has a grid that runs largely off of coal and nuclear. North Carolina has been able to attract a cluster of some of the largest data centers in the world whose owners want to buy its cheap and reliable power.

But Greenpeace still says that Apple isn’t being transparent about how it will reach those clean power goals. Greenpeace didn’t raise Apple’s score on “transparency” at all, and it kept its “D” grade in the update to the report. Greenpeace did raise Apple’s score for “infrastructure siting” to a D (from an F), “energy efficiency and green house gas mitigation” to a C (from a D) and “renewable energy investment and advocacy” to a C (from a D). Apple has now basically “passed,” but still trails behind companies like Google and Facebook in the ranking system.

Greenpeace says it didn’t raise Apple’s scores more because Apple has not disclosed how it will power the rest of its data center in North Carolina (beyond the solar and fuel cell farms) with clean power considering the local utility has little clean power. Greenpeace says it looks like Apple will be buying Renewable Energy Credits to offset the rest of the power, which is a somewhat controversial practice.

Stay out! Of Apple’s solar farm

Greenpeace also says it’s unclear if Apple will be using the clean power from its solar and fuel cells farms onsite in North Carolina, or if it will be selling the power back to the utility Duke Energy and using the dirty grid energy instead to power the data center. Apple could earn money by selling the solar power and associated Renewable Energy Credits to Duke. It’s also not yet clear how Apple will reach its clean power goal in Oregon, as it hasn’t said which utility it will buy power from, says Greenpeace.

Part of the reason the original report back in April was controversial was because Greenpeace used an estimate for the power consumption of Apple’s data center in North Carolina that Apple says was way too high. While Greenpeace had estimated that Apple’s data center in North Carolina would consume 100 MW, Apple said it will only consume 20 MW. But in this latest report, Greenpeace still isn’t buying Apple’s figure as being transparent. Greenpeace revised its estimate that Apple’s data center in North Carolina will consume 81 MW.

Here’s a variety of things that Greenpeace wants Apple to do to improve its score:

  • 1) Use its influence to push Duke Energy to add more clean power to its grid.
  • 2) Choose a utility in Oregon for its data center that has a cleaner grid and not go with Pacific Power, which generates a lot of electricity from coal.
  • 3) Use the clean power in North Carolina directly for the data center rather than selling it to Duke.
  • 4) Use biogas, from a sustainable source, directly for its fuel cells in North Carolina.
  • 5) Retire its energy credits from electricity generated in North Carolina. This is what energy service company PPL says about retiring RECs on its FAQ: “By retiring RECs using a certified REC tracking system, each REC may be issued and claimed only once. That way, you can be sure that the project owner selling the REC only did so once. In addition, as RECs are retired, new resources must be built to meet future renewable energy requirements.” Greenpeace says Apple could be counting its projects twice, which is a no-no in sustainability worlds.
  • 6) Invest in more clean power for its facilities directly instead of potentially buying RECs to offset its fossil fuel use.
  • 7) Adopt a clean power data center siting strategy.

For more on the mega data centers in North Carolina check out my four-part series this week:

7 Responses to “Greenpeace barely applauds Apple’s clean power data center plans”

  1. Jeff X Williams


    Federal Lawsuit Regarding Bloom Energy

    “Buried deep in the permit application, in Table 1 on page 161 of a 163-page application, was the number 884. On that page, under penalty of perjury, Bloom officially told the world that its energy servers emit 884 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.”

    Also buried on page 161 of the permit application is a Table 2 notation that says these 235 “clean” servers would emit 22.56 pounds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) per day. But Delaware, like other states, regulates VOC emissions at far lower levels (Maryland, for instance, regulates boat repair shops that emit more than 15 pounds per day). Moreover, if the same amount of power had been generated by combined cycle gas turbines, only 0.249 pounds of VOCs would be emitted daily. That’s 90 times less pollution!
    To top it off, because of the Bloom servers’ low efficiency and high capital cost, Delaware citizens will pay Bloom over $200 per megawatt hour of power delivered to their electricity transmission grid. But in January 2012, the U.S. Energy Information Agency said the projected “levelized” cost of electricity over the next 30 years from advanced gas-fired combined cycle power stations is $65.50 per MWH.

  2. Kelly S.

    It’s interesting to see how the way companies position themselves drives how much of a target they are for NGOs. Often, you are penalized more for going partway towards the solution than not trying at all. If Apple wasn’t making some efforts or didn’t care about the environment, they would not be as easy or as interesting a target for Greenpeace, because their efforts wouldn’t pay off. It’s worth considering that those companies consumers generally view as “good” are often vulnerable to these kinds of attacks in an unfair way. We should be encouraging these efforts and finding real business solutions for them to do more. Using less energy should save a company money and using clean energy should at least buy a company good will and brand equity.

  3. If you go to the Greenpeace website, they list 40 offices worldwide, and make claims that their Washington D.C. office has been going green since 1999 with solar panels, recyclable carpet and reclaimed wood. They make no claims of how green the other 39 offices are, nor how power is provided to those offices. Seems like Greenpeace is the one who should be “doing more”.

    • Excellent point. I truly believe in a greener planet and looking after the environment, but I cannot help to feel that they sometimes take things a bit too far and try to find whatever they can to label you “not green”.

  4. Why should we (or Apple) care what a bunch of ecoterrorists want or say? Greenpeace is nothing but a terrorist organization and should be treated just like that.