Does Apples commitment to a ‘coal free’ iCloud have a passport?

by David Pomerantz

December 18, 2012

Apple promised in May thanks in part to pressure from its customers and Greenpeace supporters that all of its data centers would become coal-free and powered by 100% renewable energy. However, rumors are circulating about a new data center 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 center outside of the US there. This raises questions about what kind of energy Apple will use to power such a data center.

While we have heard some recent news of more fuel cells for the iCloud facility in North Carolina, were 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 centers in North Carolina, Oregon and Nevada.

The news of a Hong Kong iCloud data center raises a new challenge for the companys 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, thats setting up shop in Hong Kong. Data center 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 center there. Google has announced plans to invest US$300 million in a Hong Kong data center, to be completed in 2013.

While Google has set the pace for the industrys adoption of renewable energy in the US, the companys new Hong Kong data center represents a critical challenge to its impressive track record of steadily increasing the amount of renewable energy powering its data centers.

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 centers 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 centers 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 Kongs electricity demand has become static in recent years, so new data centers are a major driver for new electricity capacity.

Its 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 center 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 center investment there rapidly expands.

David Pomerantz

By David Pomerantz

David Pomerantz is a former Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace USA, based in San Francisco. He helps lead Greenpeace's campaign for an economy powered by 100% renewable energy.

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