Solar panels at Apple's data center in Maiden, NC. Courtesy GigaOM

Apple won a Green Power Leadership award today from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its use of renewable energy to power its business, especially its data center in North Carolina, the building where Apple stores your music, photos and videos.

The EPA commended Apple for its goal of powering all of its data centers (as well as its corporate facilities and retail operations) with renewable energy, a move that Greenpeace has praised as well.

Choosing clean energy is especially important in North Carolina, where Apple would otherwise have to buy dirty energy from Duke Energy, an electric utility that makes electricity from coal, gas and nuclear power plants, with no plans to clean up any time soon. By building its own solar installations instead, Apple can help displace demand from Duke’s dirty power plants, instead growing the clean energy economy in North Carolina.

The EPA noted the impact Apple is having:

"By developing its own on-site projects, Apple ensures that it provides renewable energy that supports the company’s load and provides power to the local grid, and that this energy comes from new projects that would not have been built without Apple’s involvement."

While it’s nice to win an award, it’s even better that we can see how Apple’s investments in clean energy are actually changing the energy landscape on the ground in North Carolina. Here are two examples:

  • After Apple began investing in renewable energy in North Carolina, their example (as well as pressure from other clean energy leaders in the state like Google and Facebook) helped push Duke Energy to announce a new program to sell renewable energy to big electricity customers. We’re still waiting to see that program, and it likely won’t be perfect. But the fact that Duke is making some moves toward cleaner energy sources in the Carolinas is a good start, and Apple’s leadership helped that happen.
  • Apple’s clean energy investments also provided perfect evidence for why legislators in North Carolina should not have succumb to an effort by polluters’ front groups to repeal the state’s renewable energy law. During that heated legislative battle, one of the largest newspapers in the state cited Google and Apple’s clean energy investments as clean energy role models, and a perfect demonstration for why legislators should protect the renewable energy industry from attack. The law survived.

Apple’s work is proof that companies that invest in clean electricity can not only clean up their own energy footprint, but also have big positive ripples on the utilities and legislators around them.

Others technology companies received EPA awards today as well, but unfortunately haven’t made the same kind of real-world impact. Microsoft received an award for its purchase of renewable energy credits (RECs). RECs are similar to carbon offsets in that they allow companies to buy the right to claim to be renewably powered by funding clean energy projects, but are typically far away from where the electricity is being consumed, tactics that don’t result in the electricity Microsoft’s is actually using getting any cleaner.

In other words, Microsoft’s use of RECs means that no less coal is burned and no more renewable energy is being produced to power Microsoft’s cloud. While it’s possible that some good is being achieved as a function of Microsoft’s REC purchases, it’s not possible to point to the change that Microsoft has helped lead, unlike what Apple’s helped to create in North Carolina. As Greenpeace has pointed out multiple times, renewable energy credits aren’t nearly as effective at growing clean energy as the investments Apple and Google have made.

Greenpeace will evaluate the leading Internet companies in a report this November that will show which ones are doing the most to lead the clean energy revolution. Stay tuned to find out how Apple, Google, Microsoft and others will stack up.

[Image: Solar panels at Apple's data center in Maiden, NC. Courtesy GigaOM]