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Apple’s New Coal-Free Data Centers: Great News, Missed Opportunity

Raz Godelnik
| Friday May 25th, 2012 | 5 Comments

This was a good week for Apple. The company announced that “all three of our data centers will be coal free, which is an industry first for anybody of our size.”  The jewel in this cloud crown is Apple’s data center in Maiden, North Carolina, where the company plans to generate 60 percent of the facility’s power by itself, through a solar farm and a large deployment of Bloom energy’s “bloombox” fuel cells at the site. However, this could actually have been a great week for Apple if the company took its CSR a little bit more seriously.  The reality is that their move appeared to be something the company did in response to Greenpeace pressure, rather than pro-actively.

Looking back at Apple’s response to Greenpeace just after the organization released its ‘How Clean is Your Cloud’ Report, you can see hints of the details that Apple revealed this week.

Presumably, given the lead time needed to build a data center, Apple had some of these developments in mind long before Greenpeace came up with its report. However, it’s safe to assume that the Greenpeace campaign influenced Apple’s ‘coal-free’ strategy or at least the communication of it. No matter how you look at it, Apple appears to be playing catch-up.

Apple’s 500,000 sq. ft. data center in North Carolina will produce 60 percent of the power used by its Maiden data center onsite, and meet the remaining 40 percent by directly purchasing clean, renewable energy generated by local and regional sources. The onsite power will come from a 4.8-megawatt fuel cell facility at the site, using Bloom Boxes, and a 100-acre solar farm located across the street, which will be joined by a second farm of equal size a few miles away.

For those who followed the debate between Apple and Greenpeace after the cloud report’s release, most of this (60 percent to be accurate) isn’t really news. Apple said back in April: “Our data center in North Carolina will draw about 20 megawatts at full capacity, and we are on track to supply more than 60% of that power on-site from renewable sources including a solar farm and fuel cell installation which will each be the largest of their kind in the country.”

Let’s move on to the other two data centers. According to Apple, its data center in Prineville, Oregon, is just getting under way and

“will be every bit as environmentally responsible as our Maiden data center. At Prineville we have access to enough local renewable energy sources to completely meet the needs of the facility. To achieve that goal, we’re working with two local utilities as well as a number of renewable energy generation providers to purchase wind, hydro, and geothermal power — all from local sources.” Again, this information was already provided by Apple in April: “…it will be joined next year by our new facility in Oregon running on 100% renewable energy.”

The third facility is Apple’s data center in Newark, California. Here Apple reports that “earlier this year, we were granted regulatory approval to purchase renewable energy for our Newark, California, data center. We’re in the process of locating and buying enough direct-access clean energy to meet the needs of the facility by February 2013.” Unlike the two other data centers, I couldn’t find here any evidence for earlier plans for this development.

This week’s announcement is another example of the failures in Apple’s CSR strategy I wrote about last week. Starting with Apple’s reactive strategy, or the “Little Dutch Boy” strategy, as Prof. Gregory Unruh of Harvard calls it – Apple is clearly providing here a comprehensive ‘coal-free’ strategy only because it was strongly encouraged to do so. The sad thing is that as you could see significant parts of the new announcement were already in the works when Greenpeace released its report, which demonstrated how easily Apple could have created a different course of action.

If Apple had, for example, a stakeholder engagement strategy and didn’t have transparency issues, it would have been able to communicate effectively with Greenpeace, explain where it stands, show what it plans to do and come up as one of the ‘good guys’ instead of (heh) a bad apple. But to have a smart CSR strategy you need a strong CSR team, which Apple lacks – the fact that these developments are reported by the company’s CFO says it all.

This could have been a great green celebration for Apple in collaboration with Greenpeace. Instead the company missed opportunity and it’s been framed by the media mostly as a defeat to Greenpeace demands. If Apple won’t take its CSR strategy more seriously it probably won’t be the last one.

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.


▼▼▼      5 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Tom Dowdall

    Hi Raz,

    Great article – good to note that at Greenpeace we’ve been highlighting the need for datacenters to use renewable energy since February 2010 with our successful Facebook: Unfriend Coal campaign and Make IT Green report in March 2010. The How Clean is Your Cloud report was also a follow up to our Dirty Data report from 2011.

    Tom Dowdall
    Greenpeace International 

  • Jim

    Much of Apple’s environmental efforts were underway before Greenpeace jumped on the bandwagon.  Before attacks by Greenpeace, Apple was one of the most environmentally friendly companies out there.  How are they rewarded?  Constant attaches by Greenpeace.  Why doesn’t Greenpeace go after the other 99.9% of companies who are less environmentally friendly?  The reason is because Greenpeace is simply serving it’s own publicity seeking interests by attacking Apple since it creates the publicity that is the lifeblood of Greenpeace.  I have deep respect for most environmental organizations and used to include Greenpeace in that group but the more I learn about their true motives the more I realize how morally bankrupt Greenpeace really is.

  • Ron Wagner

    Natural gas is the future of energy. It is replacing dirty and dangerous coal and nuclear plants. It is producing the electricity for electric cars. It will directly fuel pickup trucks, vans, buses, long haul trucks, dump trucks, locomotives, aircraft, ships etc. It will keep us out of more useless wars, where we shed our blood and money.  Here are over 150 recent links for  you: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1NbaKYme3bqOw0b6KMxXSjOLHLNeflalPy9gIAiTYFMQ/edit

  • Sara

    How petty this article is. Why not just be supportive of good improvements, however they come about.

  • Nilocski

    It seems you’re criticising Apple for playing catch up, and improving their greenness.
    Wouldn’t it be fairer to congratulate them on responding in such a positive way.

    Just what do you want ??