The iCloud just keeps on growing.

Apple announced yesterday that it will build its next data centre in Reno, NV in the United States. This latest facility joins Apple’s initial three data centres in California, North Carolina and Oregon; together those buildings form the iCloud that allows us to store and share our pictures, video and e-mail.

Apple made an ambitious pledge last month when it said that all three of those first data centres would be coal free and 100% powered by renewable energy. We’re still eagerly awaiting plans from Apple for how it will effectively do that, especially in North Carolina where it still will buy electricity from Duke Energy, the mostly coal-burning utility there.

But now, we have a new question: Will Apple pledge to be 100 % renewably powered in Reno also?

The facts are still thin, but it seems that Apple is placing a big bet in Reno, according to a study apparently commissioned by Apple from a consultant called Applied Economics and then submitted to Washoe County, NV (attachment B), suggests that:

  • Apple will invest $1 billion in computer equipment for the data center over the next 10 years. (page 3)
  • Apple’s new data center will demand 35 MW of power in its first five years after half of its growth, and – assuming its investment pace holds – will demand 70 MW of power when it reaches full capacity after ten years. (page 3)
  • As for the billion dollar question about renewable energy – it’s unclear whether or not Apple will invest in renewable energy in Reno, and how it would do so. The Applied Economics study does say that “after year five they [Apple] would begin producing their own power through alternative sources.” (page 3)

That last nugget of information may be a good sign that Apple has plans to invest in renewable energy in Reno. The local electricity grid is powered by a utility called NV Energy, whose energy mix is 51% natural gas, 15% coal and 10% renewable energy.* That’s not as bad as North Carolina, which is powered by 90 % coal and nuclear energy combined, but it’s still mostly dependent on fossil fuels and a far cry from being 100 % renewably powered. The good news is that Apple does have great potential to do much better than that in Nevada, which has massive amounts of solar and geothermal energy potential.

* Note: This post originally cited NV Energy's mix at 62% natural gas, 20% coal and 6% renewable energy, based on the most current numbers available at the time of publication. We've updated the numbers in accordance with page 22 of NV Energy's 2011 Sustainability Report.

For now, we can only speculate about Apple’s next move. One thing this new data centre does show is that the iCloud, and its ever increasing energy appetite, are continuing to grow and grow. Since Apple will keep building these facilities, the most important thing it can and must do is to make a formal commitment that all of its data centres will be powered by renewable energy.  That will send a powerful signal to utilities that if they want Apple’s business, they must start shutting down coal plants that destroy communities and the climate, and investing in renewable energy. For an example of that kind of commitment, Apple can look to Facebook, who has committed to power its cloud with renewable energy and adopted a siting policy that prioritises renewable energy when it decides where to build its data centres.

Greenpeace will release an analysis in July re-scoring Apple based on the criteria it used in its How Clean is Your Cloud? report from April, 2012, taking into account Apple’s latest statements about renewable energy and its announcement of the new Nevada data centre.