Duke Energy's Marshall Steam Station

How does Apple’s $1billion iDataCenter in Maiden, North Carolina draw its power?

Apple is sending millions of dollars a year to Duke Energy, one of the few utilities in the US that is still building coal plants.  

By making a substantial investment in their North Carolina data center, Apple obviously plans to stay put for decades to come. But Duke’s lack of interest in real, local investment in clean energy is completely at odds with Apple’s environmental commitments and history of powering its operations with renewable energy.

So which of Duke’s coal plants will make the electricity Apple is buying from Duke?

The oldest and most hazardous: Riverbend coal fired power station

Operating since 1929, the Riverbend coal fired power station is one of the oldest running coal plants in the US. The two massive coal ash dumps at Riverbend contain a toxic slurry of coal ash and heavy metals, and are separated from the Catawba River only by an unlined containment wall. The EPA has categorized these dumps as “high-hazard” and they abut Mountain Island Lake, a source of drinking water for 1.5 million local residents. The high-hazard designation means that if the earthen dams holding back these unlined pits were to break, the surrounding residents would likely be killed by the unleashed toxic brew.

Despite continuous community efforts to close the plant, the oldest unit  in operation since 1929  was only retired in 2011. Riverbend’s remaining units, which are around 60 years old and among the oldest plants in the US, continue to operate.

The most lethal for public health: Marshall coal-fired power station

The Marshall coal-fired power station has been in operation since 1965. This station has the highest emissions of asthma and heart disease inducing NOx and SO2 emissions of Duke’s North Carolina fleet (9000 tons and 3800 tons respectively), and emits 11.5 million tons of carbon pollution annually. Because of its upwind proximity to Winston-Salem, a significant metro area, the pollution from this plant has the highest adverse health impact in Duke’s fleet, estimated to cause 130 deaths and 2200 asthma attacks per year, according to research commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force.

Buck Riverbend Cliffside Dan River GG Allen Marshall Belews Creek
Operating Since 1926 1929 1940 1947 1950 1965 1974
Deaths 9 15 21 18 59 130 100
Heart Attacks 13
22 31 28 89 200 160
Asthma Attacks 140 260 340 300 990 2,200 1,700
Hospital Admissions 6 12 16 13 44 98 76
Chronic Bronchitis 5 10 13 11 37 80 63
Asthma ER Visits  8 15 18 16 54 120 88

Health impacts research commissioned by Clean Air Task Force
Plant commercial date from Duke Energy

Why Apple’s choice matters

Large and sophisticated power consumers like Apple are the most important growth market for Duke Energy. Duke has worked hard to lure Apple to the region, with offers of “cheap” power fed by a fleet of coal and nuclear plants.

If Apple wants to be a responsible large energy consumer, they must pay close attention to the energy ecosystem in North Carolina and ensure that their presence will not prop up outdated and dirty coal plants. Apple can use its market power to encourage Duke Energy to provide clean energy options and stop the use of mountaintop removal coal. Apple should follow the lead of its Silicon Valley and North Carolina neighbor, Facebook, who has committed to set a policy to build future data centers in locations that have access to renewable energy, and to lobby the utilities that provide it power, such as Duke, for more access to renewable energy.

By 2015, all but one of Duke Energy’s coal power plants will have reached the end of their economic life, which places the company at a significant investment crossroad. As one of Duke’s top customers, Apple and other tech companies can strongly influence Duke to retire the old plants and choose a sustainable energy pathway.