Does Apple lie about how it powers its data centers?

Apple, and other major data center operators, are trying to do the right thing. But it will be a long time before operating data centers becomes a carbon neutral activity
Written by David Chernicoff, Contributor on

In a story on Truthout.com, Nicki Lisa Cole asked the question: "Why does Apple lie about powering its data center with renewable energy?" While this has ignited some online debate about the nature of Apple's veracity, in the data center world it barely merited a raised eyebrow.

Data centers require reliable, sustainable sources of power. And they need to be able to draw power from the local grid. While technologies such as wind and solar are used to generate power for public utilities, data center operators require power that is always available; not just when the sun is out or the wind is blowing. And very few public utilities provide 100 percent green, renewable power. While data center operators pay lip service to getting green power, the reality is that it is a bottom line issue -- and that cheap power wins.

At its facilities in the Pacific Northwest, Apple (and Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, etc.) are able to actually make use of a steady supply of very green renewable energy. Over 40 percent of the hydroelectric power generated in the United States comes from the Columbia River Basin.

But in North Carolina, where the same companies have and are building additional data centers, there isn't such a convenient local source of cheap, renewable energy. This means that the data centers are running on the same power sources that get environmental activists up in arms; everything from coal to nuclear provides power to the grid they use. There are some minor exceptions to this, such as eBay's use of Bloom Energy fuel cells to provide significant power at its primary data center; but for the most part, this pattern holds true.

The trick, however, is that those same companies are buying renewable energy certificates and building facilities such as wind and solar power farms to put energy into the grid to offset the non-renewable energy that they buy to power their data centers. So while the truth is that the data centers are not powered by renewable energy, these companies are making at least an equivalent amount of renewable energy available for sale to the general public, offsetting any increase in non-green emissions, and such.

The real issue here is that the Apple marketing machine, by claiming that their data centers are 100% powered by renewable energy, has made the reality of the situation as invisible as possible to their customer base and to activists such as Greenpeace, who give Apple top ratings for "using" renewable power. Apple customers who have any awareness of the power issues are able to add to their smug sense of self-satisfaction that their beloved company is doing the right thing. This explains the outraged tone of the Truthout article. Never buy into the marketing hype without checking it out first.

Apple, and other major data center operators, are trying to do the right thing. Without their investments in solar and wind, many of those large projects appearing across the US would be non-starters. Their investments are limiting the growth of carbon emissions even as data centers account for a notable percentage of global power consumption. But it will be a long time before operating data centers will become a carbon neutral activity. Data centers will continue to use suitable renewable energy sources when possible, and purchase offsets to meet their own internal goals for renewable energy use. And some, like Apple, will turn this process into a marketing talking point.

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