The first step to solving most problems is admitting that you have one. Apple has a growing coal problem, and once they come clean about that, they can start applying their renowned innovation to solving it. Unfortunately, Apple has been less than forthcoming about the source and amount of energy that will be needed to power the iCloud. Now, Greenpeace has found new evidence (a permit application and permit) that provide additional clarity on Apple’s iCloud plans, and clearly shows that the company’s coal problem is on a trajectory to grow far beyond what Apple is currently willing to admit. 

Greenpeace International released a report two weeks ago, “How Clean is Your Cloud?”, that evaluated Apple and 13 other tech companies on steps they are taking to reduce the use of dirty energy used to power their data centers. Some companies, like Google and Yahoo, are showing commitment to clean energy, but Apple received poor grades in all categories, including transparency, and for investment and construction of data centers that are powered mostly with coal power. 

Because Apple and many other companies do not disclose the amount of power their data centers use, the report used estimates of electricity demand based on conservative industry benchmarks for power demand. We estimated Apple’s new iDataCenter in Maiden, North Carolina would draw 100 MW of power at maximum capacity, most of it from Duke Energy, a company which uses coal from destructive mountaintop removal mining. Our estimate was driven primarily by the $1B USD investment Apple had committed to this new facility, and also informed to a lesser extent by the massive size of the 500,000 sq ft building.   

We showed our estimates to Apple during production of the report, but Apple declined to provide its own figures on its electricity demand. After we released the report, however, Apple immediately began trying to downplay the amount of electricity it will buy from Duke by saying publicly that its intended capacity for the iDataCenter is only 20 megawatts, far less than our estimate of 100, and on-site renewable energy would provide 60% of its power needs, making Maiden the “greenest data center ever built.”

While we wish this were the case, given the scale of investment Apple has already committed to, and the dirty energy Duke Energy is currently planning to offer Apple, the iCloud data center has a coal problem that is only going to get worse unless Apple demands better.

Apple’s growth plans revealed:

Public documents filed with local officials indicate that Apple has plans significantly beyond the 20 megawatts (MW) it has been willing to admit to its customers.

New information from the North Carolina Division of Air Quality, released today by Greenpeace, shows that Apple has applied for and received permits for 24 backup diesel generators that would provide the iDataCenter with 54 megawatts (MW) of electricity. 
All data centers need diesel generators as an on-site backup so that if there’s a blackout, the facility can keep running, and many companies install some redundant backup capacity for additional security. When it applied for these permits, Apple anticipated a normal power demand for the facility of 75% of the rated capacity of these generators, or 41 MW, nearly double the amount Apple claimed after Greenpeace launched our campaign. See Apple’s application  and permit with the North Carolina Division of Air Quality. 

Why would Apple want to mislead the public by seeking to hide its future power demands? By claiming their electricity demand will be much smaller, Apple can convey the impression that most of their electricity would come from their solar panels and fuel cells on site, not Duke’s coal. But Apple’s diesel permits show that the company clearly is in a position to continue to expand and increase the power demand of its Maiden iDataCenter, and that expansion would be fuelled by dirty coal from Duke. 

We also know that 41 MW is not the upper limit of Apple’s planned expansion in North Carolina. When Apple first committed to build the iDatacenter in Maiden, it was reported that a second identical facility was part of Apple’s long term plan on this site, and in fact the contract that Apple negotiated with the city of Maiden and Catawba County, NC, explicitly allows Apple to invest another $1B USD – double Apple’s initial commitment, with the same tax incentives. That means that Apple could potentially build an entire other data center in Maiden that would also be powered by Duke’s coal. For its part, Duke can hardly hide its excitement at the prospect of more Apple investment. According to Duke Energy, Apple is “the type of customer where the meter spins and spins at an exponential pace.” That quote, and others from Duke about how Apple will be one of Duke’s top 10 customers in North Carolina, was mysteriously pulled from Duke’s web site recently.

What Apple should really be doing: 

Apple should be more transparent about its plans for North Carolina, and how it intends to address its growing coal problem. Thankfully, there are good role models for Apple. Rackspace, for example, another cloud computing company, discloses the amount of electricity demand – both current and projected – for all of its data centers. 

There are plenty of solutions for Apple to start taking real steps to move away from coal. Apple can use its market power to push Duke Energy to provide clean energy options and stop the use of mountaintop removal coal. Apple should follow or exceed the lead of its Silicon Valley and North Carolina neighbor, Facebook, which has committed to set a policy to build future data centers in locations that have access to renewable energy and to lobby the utilities which provide it power, such as Duke, for more access to renewable energy.

Apple is known for its innovation. It should be leading the technology sector in a way that only Apple can. To do that, they need to come forward with their solution to their coal problem.

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