Apple’s new environmental chief Lisa Jackson to grow Apple’s energy efficiency, clean power

Apple's solar farm in North Carolina. Image courtesy of Apple.

Apple’s high profile new environmental chief — the former head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency — Lisa Jackson spoke publicly for one of the first times on Wednesday after taking the role at Apple four months earlier. At the sustainability conference VERGE, Jackson said she plans to pump up Apple’s efforts in using energy more efficiently and bringing more clean power to Apple’s data centers and office buildings.

“Tim Cook didn’t hire Lisa Jackson to be quiet and keep the status quo. We understand our responsibility and we do care,” said Jackson.

Bloom Energy

Jackson came to Apple when the company already had begun to devote more money and time on increasing its use of renewable electricity at its data centers and taking other actions to lower its carbon footprint. The company has been getting high marks for its efforts, a contrast to a time when the use of toxic chemicals in its products and other issues made it a target for Greenpeace.

As the former head of a federal agency that faced no shortage of controversies, Jackson brings with her a deep understanding of politics and regulatory processes, which are crucial for Apple to master as it sets out to work with utilities and state agencies on more clean power generation projects. Jackson herself was also controversial in the role.

High-profile clean power projects for Apple include a massive solar and fuel cell farm at its data center in North Carolina. SunPower supplied the solar panels while Bloom Energy made the fuel cells. Apple is selling part of the power from the fuel cells to the local utility. Apple also is working on a solar power plant, again using SunPower’s technology, at its new data center in Reno, Nevada.

Jackson talked about the challenges of pushing and developing sustainability projects within Apple. One of them is the challenge of collecting solid data and being able to measure projects and their success rates. This includes Apple’s method to calculate the energy use and carbon footprint of its operation and products, the manufacturing of its devices and the supply chain and customers’ use of the products. Jackson pointed to the life cycle analysis that Steve Jobs publicized back in 2009 in an effort to change the company’s image, as an example of Apple’s attention to creating sustainability metrics and data.

Apple Solar FarmJackson leads a team of 17 people and one of her group’s tasks is to recruit employees who are willing to help with the company’s sustainability projects. There is a group of such employees who called themselves Apple Earth, and Jackson said she joined that group on her second day at the company. “People are busy with their primary work, so it’s about finding champions in areas where people are interested in,” said Jackson.

While clean power projects have generated good publicity for Apple, it’s not the first thing the company looks at when it thinks about energy use. Energy efficiency — how to use energy more efficiently by conserving or cutting wasteful use — is the first thing Apple considers, Jackson said.

Aside from generating its own clean power, Apple also would buy it from renewable energy power plant owners, depending on its availability. Apple also buys renewable energy credits to offset its carbon footprint. The company is working on powering all of its data centers and other buildings with renewable electricity, such as solar, wind, hydro and geothermal.

It’s worth noting that many other corporate giants, in tech or otherwise, also are investing a lot of money in clean power generation. Google is often cited for its rather extensive effort to invest in clean power projects. eBay also has publicized its efforts to use solar and fuel cells at its data centers. On the non-tech side, Walmart, Costco and IKEA just made the list of top 25 U.S. businesses that have installed the most solar power generation projects.

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