Greenpeace Takes on Apple and Other Tech Companies over Coal-Powered Data Centers

Activist group Greenpeace today issued a new report entitled How Clean is Your Cloud?, targeting major Internet companies including Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft over their heavy use of coal-derived power for their massive data centers.

Given the energy-intensive nature of maintaining the cloud, access to significant amounts of electricity is a key factor in decisions about where to build these data centers. Since electricity plays a critical role in the cost structure of companies that use the cloud, there have been dramatic strides made in improving the energy efficiency design of the facilities and the thousands of computers that go inside. However, despite significant improvements in efficiency, the exponential growth in cloud computing far outstrips these energy savings. Companies must look not only at how efficiently they are consuming electricity, but also the sources of electricity that they are choosing.

The study covers 14 Internet companies, but singles out Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft as the biggest offenders. According to Greenpeace's data, Apple is the only one of the 14 companies to derive more than half of its data center power (55%) from coal. Apple also ranks third in the share of its power needs coming from nuclear sources.

greenpeace data centers
Greenpeace acknowledges Apple's work to build a 20-megawatt solar farm and 5-megawatt fuel cell facility at its new data center in Maiden, North Carolina, but downplays their significance by claiming that the facilities will cover only 10% of the site's power needs. Greenpeace specifically takes Apple to task for its decision to locate its data center in North Carolina, which reportedly maintains one of the dirtiest power grids in the country. In particular, Duke Energy is continuing to invest in coal and nuclear power options while investing "very little" in renewable energy. A similar situation exists in Prineville, Oregon, where Apple has announced plans for another data center.

To deliver iCloud services, Apple has dramatically expanded its data center infrastructure. It has invested at least $1bn in an “iDataCenter” in North Carolina, one of the world’s largest data centers, and just announced another facility to be built in Prineville, Oregon. Unfortunately, both of these investments are powered by utilities that rely mostly on coal power. Given the lack of transparency, siting policy or a clear commitment to power the iCloud with renewable energy, Apple is finding itself behind other companies such as Facebook and Google who are angling to control a bigger piece of the cloud.

Apple maintains a significant environmental section of its website, including disclosures on its Maiden data center, which the company believes is the only data center of its size to achieve a LEED Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. But while Greenpeace gives Apple some credit for its steps, the organization continues to give Apple poor marks for a lack of complete transparency about its data center power demands and publicly-available policies regarding the energy considerations for its projects.

While Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft take the brunt of Greenpeace's criticism, Yahoo and Google receive high marks for their policies prioritizing renewable energy in their projects and for promoting policies to increase investment in renewable energy. Facebook also receives high marks for its recent commitment to renewable energy, including its latest data center in Sweden that can be powered with 100% renewable energy.

Update: In a statement issued to The New York Times, Apple discloses for the first time that the current data center in Maiden, North Carolina consumes roughly 20 megawatts of power, meaning that the 25 megawatts of power planned for the solar farm and fuel cell facility at that location should be sufficient for at least this phase of the project. Apple's long-term plans include eventually doubling the size of the data center with a second building, and it seems unlikely that the 20-megawatt number includes those plans.

In a statement issued in response to the report, Apple disclosed for the first time that the data center would consume about 20 million watts at full capacity — much lower than Greenpeace’s estimate, which is 100 million watts. In territory served by Duke, a million watts is enough to power 750 to 1,000 homes.

Kristin Huguet, a spokeswoman for Apple, added that the company is building two large projects intended to offset energy use from the grid in North Carolina: an array of solar panels and a set of fuel cells.

Update 2: Greenpeace has responded with a blog post questioning Apple's statements about energy usage at the Maiden data center.

While it is good to see Apple acknowledge it should reveal more details of the energy consumption of its data centers, the information they released today does not add up with what they have reported to be the size of the investment and physical size of the data center. [...] While Apple is well known for making more expensive consumer products, if Apple’s plans for the $ 1Billion investment only generates 20MW in power demand, that would be taking the “Apple premium” to a whole new level.

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Top Rated Comments

Yuppi Avatar
159 months ago
Nothing produces clouds as good as the old coal technology!
Score: 60 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Consultant Avatar
159 months ago
Perhaps they don't understand Apple's data center will have:
- largest solar panel installment
- largest fuel cell installment
Score: 43 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Man4allsea Avatar
159 months ago
What about Whale Blubber?

Apple could build gigantic salt water ponds, and fill them with whales... the Whales could be fed a diet of krill fed from organically raised soy and magic... We could populate these lakes with Humpback whales and harvest them for oil to run the iCloud, then we could seal the whole thing in a corn-based plastic dome to ensure that there was zero impact on the surrounding area.

Or we could consider the decreased environmental impact of data centers in a variety of other ways, such as decreasing the need for onsite hardware by up to 95% percent.
Score: 31 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Simplicated Avatar
159 months ago
We all should live in the stone age. :rolleyes:

Apple is doing their best to add environmental-friendly equipment to their data centers. What?
Score: 27 Votes (Like | Disagree)
fletch33 Avatar
159 months ago
Apple does what it can to be energy efficient as do most publicly watched companies. they need the juice to provide the services that also provide jobs. it is not their decision how the local community produces that energy.
Score: 26 Votes (Like | Disagree)
SandboxGeneral Avatar
159 months ago
So what.... were they supposed to either build their own nuclear power plants or build a state-sized solar farm to power those data centers? :confused: :rolleyes:
Score: 25 Votes (Like | Disagree)