Greenpeace Dings Apple’s NC Data Center for Dirty Energy

Environmental group Greenpeace has dinged Apple for relying on dirty energy for the data center the company is building in North Carolina. In a report titled “How Dirty Is Your Data?,” Greenpeace rated several technology firms — including Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and more — and their large data centers, criticizing most of them for locating those data centers in areas reliant on coal and nuclear power, and for being less-than-transparent on how their cloud operations use energy.

How Dirty Is Your Data?

Greenpeace Cover

“These mega data centres, which will draw from some of the dirtiest generation mixes in the US, highlights the sway of low-cost energy, misplaced tax incentives, and a corresponding lack of commitment to clean energy,” Greenpeace wrote in its report.

The group believes that growing data centers and other cloud services currently consume between 1.5% and 2% of the world’s electricity, and that this consumption is growing at a rate of 12% per year. The report was issued to put pressure on companies to be more transparent on how they are using energy at their data centers, and to consider clean energy availability when siting their infrastructure.

Report Card

All told, the report covers data center energy use at ten technology giants, all American, including: Akamai, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo! The companies were graded on Transparency, Infrastructure Siting, Mitigation Strategy. Each company’s clean energy use and the mix of coal energy are also reported.

In the report card below, you can see that the highest grade any firm earned was a “B” (only four “B” grades were issued), with the rest being a mix of “C,” “D,” and “F” grades. Apple received a “C” in Transparency, an “F” in Infrastructure Siting, and a “C” in its mitigation strategy. Apple also had the worst clean energy index with just 6.7% of its cloud computing energy being clean, and not continentally, the worst coal intensity percentage, with 54.5% of that energy coming from coal.


Greenpeace Report Card

Greenpeace’s Clean Cloud Power Report Card

Corporate Communication

Greenpeace praised Apple for its transparency and for the environmental footprint of its products, “especially laptops and iPhones.” Greenpeace had been critical of Apple in the past for using toxic chemicals in the production of its products, and Apple subsequently took a much more aggressive stance on reducing the use of those substances. That, in turn, led to Greenpeace praising Apple repeatedly for making its products more green.

In giving Apple a “C” on transparency relating to its cloud initiatives, Greenpeace said the company, “has not been as forthcoming on the current or expected impacts of its online products [emphasis added for clarity]. Though many IT companies have pointed to the benefits of downloading entertainment over traditional delivery methods, one of the largest online destinations for such media – iTunes - does not provide any data to evaluate these claims or allow comparison with offerings from other vendors.”

Greenpeace also scolded Apple for not participating in the Carbon Disclosure Project voluntary reporting program.

Location, Location, Location

Apple got an “F” for choosing North Carolina as the site for its newest data center. Apple, Google, and Facebook all have large data centers within a few miles of each other in the state (Apple’s facility in Maiden, NC, is the largest of the three).

The problem, according to Greenpeace, is that this area primarily gets its power from Duke Energy, which generates most of its power from coal, and most of the rest from nuclear, the two forms of energy generation that Greenpeace rates the lowest in terms of being green.

“Apple’s decision to locate its iDataCenter in North Carolina, which has an electrical grid among the dirtiest in the country (61% coal, 31% nuclear), indicates a lack of a corporate commitment to clean energy supply for its cloud operations,” Greenpeace wrote. “The fact that the alternative location for Apple’s iDataCenter was Virginia, where electricity is also comes from very dirty sources, is an indication that, in addition to tax incentives, access to inexpensive energy, regardless of its source, is a key driver in Apple’s site selection.”

Buying & Sourcing Clean Energy

The third grade each company received was for their plans and strategies for mitigating their power usage. For instance, Google got a “B” in part because the company committed to buying 114 megawatts of wind power, and for other steps the company has made to source its energy from clean and renewable forms.

Twitter, on the other hand, got an “F” for moving its operations to an area in Utah that relies almost entirely on coal power. Facebook got a “D” for “not providing any additional mitigation strategies or effort to procure and make investment in nearby renewable energy generation.”

Apple received praise from Greenpeace for increasing how much clean energy the company is buying, and for saying that it would buy green energy wherever it could.

“However,” Greenpeace wrote, “Apple has not declared a renewable energy or greenhouse gas target to shape this commitment. The massive iDataCenter has estimated electricity demand (at full capacity) as high as triple Apple’s current total reported electricity use, which will unfortunately have a significant impact on Apple’s environmental footprint.”

Apple’s grade in this category was a “C.”

After having successfully increased the spotlight on the environmental impact of producing electronic goods, Greenpeace’s newest aim appears to similarly get people and corporations thinking about how the growing “cloud” of online computing services will be developed, sited, and powered. The report issued Thursday offers a comprehensive look at the ten companies examined, and it is likely to stir up interest in the subject.