Apple promised in May – thanks in part to pressure from its customers and Greenpeace supporters – that all of its data centres would become “coal-free” and powered by 100% renewable energy. However, rumours are circulating about a new data centre that Apple is said to be building in Hong Kong.

Apple has not yet confirmed the investment, but the Hong Kong Economic Times, citing three unnamed sources, is reporting that Apple will build its first data centre outside of the US there. This raises questions about what kind of energy Apple will use to power such a data centre.

While we have heard some recent news of more fuel cells for the iCloud facility in North Carolina, we’re still eagerly awaiting a proper update from Apple about how it intends to meet its commitment to provide coal-free energy to its US-based data centres in North Carolina, Oregon and Nevada.

The news of a Hong Kong iCloud data centre raises a new challenge for the company’s clean energy plans, and potentially a thornier one for Apple to solve.

Similar to the dirty energy mix provided by Duke Energy in North Carolina, the electricity grid in Hong Kong is a troubling mixture of fossil fuels: 54% coal, 23% nuclear and 23% natural gas. Renewable energy makes up less than 1% of the grid.

In sharp contrast to its ambitious plans for importing more nuclear power, the Hong Kong government has shown a lack of commitment in developing the renewable energy sector, and is currently proposing to expand renewable energy to only 1-2% of the total energy mix by 2020. (See page 28 of the How Clean is Your Cloud? report for more information on Hong Kong.)

Apple is not the only IT company, however, that’s setting up shop in Hong Kong. Data centre floor space grew 18% in 2010-2011 (Ming Pao News, 9 February 2012) with both household-name internet companies and lesser-known co-location facilities entering the fray.

Some investigative reporting from Wired suggests that Amazon Web Services is headed to Hong Kong as well, and Rackspace already operates a data centre there. Google has announced plans to invest US$300 million in a Hong Kong data centre, to be completed in 2013.

While Google has set the pace for the industry’s adoption of renewable energy in the US, the company’s new Hong Kong data centre represents a critical challenge to its impressive track record of steadily increasing the amount of renewable energy powering its data centres.

Procuring clean electricity in Hong Kong will also be challenging for Apple, but not impossible. There are ample wind resources in Hong Kong, and Apple could spur investment in new wind projects.

Apple and the other major IT brands that have built data centres in Hong Kong could work together to use their considerable influence to lobby the utilities there, Hong Kong Electrics and China Light and Power, to increase their planned use of renewable energy so that the grid powering their data centres becomes cleaner over the long term.

If Apple worked collaboratively with other major cloud brands in Hong Kong, it would wield massive influence on the electricity sector. Hong Kong’s electricity demand has become static in recent years, so new data centres are a major driver for new electricity capacity. 

It’s crucial that industry leaders such as Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Rackspace and Google – all of which have set sustainability goals (except for Amazon)– start setting a clear bar for the utilities and a clear example for other data centre operators in Hong Kong.

They should demand that utilities bring renewable energy to the Hong Kong grid to at least keep pace with their electricity appetite as data centre investment there rapidly expands.