Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Apple Makes Peace with Greenpeace 

Apple may not be running the Maiden facility on 100 percent renewable energy as they claim. However, the intention to do well appears to be there, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Greenpeace seems to be on board with it.

In April of 2012, Greenpeace blasted Apple for not taking steps to ensure their cloud services were run off renewable energy. While Greenpeace is more prone to stronger language when discussing green, they are reasonable and willing to hand out recognition where deserved. For example, earlier this year they lauded Salesforce’s green efforts.

On Thursday, Apple announced that they were committed to running all their data centers on 100 percent renewable energy, following the example of their flagship facility in Maiden, North Carolina. The Maiden center uses on-site fuel cells owned by Apple as well as what the company calls the “nation’s largest end-user owned onsite solar array.” This means their Prineville, Oregon data center, which the company notes is still under construction, will attempt to take full advantage of the considerable renewable resources Oregon has to offer.

Further, their planned new data center in Reno, Nevada is designed to take advantage of Reno’s geothermal capabilities in much the same way Verne Global’s Icelandic data center does.

That aside, there exists some healthy skepticism from the green IT community on Apple’s intentions. Some institutions (but not all of course) that promote themselves as green-friendly do so because green practices happen to also save money. Increasing data center efficiency and cutting wasteful energy are two decent paths to improve one’s bottom line.

As such, the questioning of Apple is meant to determine whether they actually act as green as their appearances suggest they do.

Take this New York Daily News report published on Thursday by David Knowles for example. Apple mentioned in their release yesterday that “though our revenue has grown, our greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of revenue have decreased by 21.5 percent since 2008.” Knowles points out that despite this, Apple’s emissions actually went up 34 percent last year. However, a large portion of that, as Knowles notes, goes to manufacturing and distribution. Only two percent of Apple’s carbon emissions in 2012 could be attributed to their data operation.

With that being said, data centers in general across the world are becoming a greater consumer of the world’s energy, and Apple is fairly pleased with the strides they have made in that area. “Several of our largest and most energy-intensive locations are now running entirely on renewables, including our offices at One Infinite Loop in Austin and Cork, Ireland,” said Scott Brodrick, who works with Apple's worldwide product marketing group.

Specifically, they look to the Maiden facility, where they claim ‘nation’s largest’ status for both their solar array and their fuel cells. “We're especially proud of our progress at our data center in Maiden, which we said at the start would be a model of green building and we've followed through on that. So when you download an iTunes song, for example, it's coming from a facility that's powered 100 percent on renewable energy.”

The figure below outlines the power setup at the Maiden facility, with the 20 megawatt solar array contributing a reported 42 million kWh. A second 20 megawatt array (20 megawatts is the maximum sunny say output, reports suggest the average will be about a third of that) is to be operational later this year.

2012 was the year Greenpeace called out Apple for their brown cloud services, but it was also the year Apple installed its Maiden solar array. Despite the construction of that array, critics are still wary of Apple and specifically their relationship with the local Duke Energy.

Duke Energy recently cornered the energy market in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina and they rely on nuclear and coal power to provide most of its energy. Apple’s practice was to buy energy from Duke to power their data center before the array’s completion and to fuel the necessary backup generators once the array became operational.

Further, there remains some question as to what Apple will do once the Maiden facility has to expand due to greater demand. “They’ve probably maxed out what they can generate on site, and so they’re going to buy more and more from the grid as they grow,” said Gary Cook, an analyst with Greenpeace, on the impact of Apple’s impending continued growth.

These practices suggest that Apple may not be running the Maiden facility on 100 percent renewable energy as they claim. However, the intention to do well appears to be there, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Greenpeace seems to be on board with it, coming back to them and their initial April 2012 report.

In their post congratulating Salesforce for their commitment, Greenpeace left out Apple in the section that targets companies such as Amazon and Microsoft that have yet, according to the organization, to wave their green flag.  “We’d like to see more companies doing what Google has done and what Apple is trying to do and green the grid as they grow,” Cook concluded.

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