Greenpeace provokes Apple on renewable energy stance

Heightened criticism of cloud power consumption prompts debate on data center design and electricity sourcing decisions.

Greenpeace activists scale the Apple headquarters in Cork City and display a clear message "Clean Our Cloud" to demand that the company switch from coal to renewable energy sources to power their cloud computing data center, as an employee looks on. (Courtesy Greenpeace International)

Once again, I have to thank Greenpeace International for continuing to provoke energy-efficiency policy disclosures and commitments by some of the world's most influential technology companies. The company has already guilted Facebook into rethinking the sourcing for its electricity and embracing more renewable sources. Now, it seems determined to get Apple to do the same.

As I've reported several times in the past few months, one of the environmental organization's latest crusades is the generation sources behind the data centers powering huge cloud services organizations. Apple appears to be its favorite target right now, as it builds out the data centers powering its iCloud operations.

Although Apple has committed to what has been described as the nation's largest on-site commercial solar and fuel cell installation supporting its location in North Carolina, the company found itself the target of an unfavorable rating in the Greenpeace, "How Clean Is Your Cloud?" report out in mid-April. To be fair, Amazon and Microsoft didn't exactly make out all that well, but Greenpeace seems to have made Apple the focus of its activism on this matter.

Apple responded to the Greenpeace cloud energy report at least twice in the media in the days that followed: first to point out that it believed Greenpeace's estimates of its data center energy consumption were too high, and second to make the statement that its new data center in Prineville, Ore., will be powered by 100 percent renewable electricity.

If you poke a little deeper into that second claim, however, you'll discover that the facility will not directly run on renewable energy. Instead, Apple's utility provider for the site will buy renewable energy credits (RECs) to make up the difference.

As a result, Greenpeace hasn't really budged in its position. Here's a statement put out by Gary Cook, senior IT policy analyst at Greenpeace:

"There's a big different between buying renewable power directly and buying renewable energy 'credits' that help your reputation but don't power the iCloud with one electron more of clean energy. If Apple is as serious about a clean cloud as we hope they are, Oregon has plenty of truly renewable power options that it can explore."

So, here's the big question: how many other big high-tech data center operators and cloud service providers are in the same boat as Apple? If you look closely at how many other companies get to their claims about renewable energy power consumption, you will find that many other high-tech companies rely heavily on RECs to get the math to work in their favor.

In fact, if you peek at the list of the nation's Top 20 onsite generators of renewable energy only two high-tech companies make the list, Adobe and Google.

Apple's success makes it a very visible target, even though it probably isn't the worst offender for this particular issue. But I can't say I feel sorry for the attention it is drawing, since it is bound to mean progress on the sorts of energy-efficiency and renewable energy measures we will need to keep the cloud buildout as green as possible.

(Image courtesy of Greenpeace International)

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