A police officer peers into Greenpeace's "iPod" as part of a protest at Apple's Cupertino headquarters a few days before Apple's new renewable energy announcement

Apple has made a bold claim to make all three of its data centres “coal free” and has doubled the amount of solar energy powering its data centre in North Carolina. Apple’s customers certainly appreciate boldness, and will love the ambition to be “coal free.”

“All three of our data centres will be coal free, which is an industry first for anybody of our size,” Apple’s CFO Peter Oppenheimer said last Thursday when announcing that the company is doubling the amount of solar energy powering its data centre in North Carolina.

This is a clear sign that Apple is listening to the 220,000 customers who have asked for a clean iCloud. Apple now needs to show those customers how it will turn that rhetoric into reality, with further action and changes to its plans.

Under Apple’s current plans, it says its solar investment and fuel cells will provide as much as 60% of the electricity needed by the data centre in its current size.

It says the remaining 40 percent will come from providers of renewable energy in the region. But since Apple will have to buy that electricity from Duke Energy, the only electric utility in the area, which relies heavily on coal, that is going to be difficult for Apple to do on its own accord.

Apple may even need much more electricity than that as the data center continues to grow out of its first phase, which Apple’s permits clearly indicate it will do. A bigger data center could mean more coal burned by Duke Energy.

Apple could be hoping to offset Duke’s dirty coal by purchasing “Renewable Energy Credits” (RECs) in North Carolina. That, however, would make Apple “coal free” in name only.  

RECs are a method of carbon offsets that allow companies to pay for credits that supposedly help finance other renewable energy projects, while not using the actual electricity from that project. In other words, Apple’s use of RECs means that no less coal is burned by Duke and no more renewable energy is produced to power its cloud. Apple can do better.

Apple can buy renewable energy directly by signing a long-term contract to build new clean energy projects in North Carolina, as Google has done with wind farms elsewhere in the US Midwest.

Apple could do even better  by using its buying power as one of Duke Energy’s anticipated top 10 customers to demand that Duke provide it with clean energy. If Duke shifts its investment plan to renewable energy, not only Apple but the rest of North Carolina wins by getting greater access to clean electricity.

Apple also needs to reveal its plans for how it will power its Prineville, Oregon data centre with renewable energy. Apple says “… we have access to enough local renewable energy sources to completely meet the needs of the facility.” Apple should present a detailed plan for how it will go 100% renewable in Oregon without the use of RECs.

Finally, Apple needs to make a commitment that all of its future data centres will live up to CFO Oppenheimer’s bold words. Apple will undoubtedly need to build more data centres and expand its current ones as more people around the world use the iCloud.

iCloud customers want to use services powered by clean electricity, not coal. Greenpeace will continue to work with those customers until the company has policies to ensure that its current and future data centres use clean energy.

Now that Apple has shown it is starting to listen to its customers, the question is, will Microsoft or Amazon go one step further?