If Mitt Romney thinks he had a bad week last week he should check with Apple. First, the company was forced to admit that its withdrawal from EPEAT was a mistake. Then came Greenpeace with a report on Apple’s new commitments to green up its cloud, which suggested that while Apple shows some progress, it’s still not enough and the company is still lagging behind other companies such as Facebook and Google.
I bet this report, which was a follow-up to Greenpeace’s How Clean is Your Cloud report, raised some eyebrows at Apple. After all the company responded to the original report with a number of updates on its efforts to power its data centers using renewable energy as well as a clear commitment to make all its data centers coal free by 2013.
So why is Greenpeace picking on Apple instead of just congratulating the company for raising the bar? Didn’t Apple do enough to be considered one of the good guys (i.e. Google, Yahoo, Facebook) rather than one of the bad guys (Amazon, Microsoft)? Well, not if you ask Greenpeace. The devil apparently is not just in the details, but also in communicating them.
First, the details. The good news on the report is that almost all of Apple’s grades went up in Greenpeace’s scorecard due to the increased use of on-site renewable energy in North Carolina. Apple’s clean energy index score went up from 15.3 percent to 22.6 percent, and the company’s coal and nuclear scores went down significantly. In addition, Apple’s infrastructure siting rating was improved from F to D and the energy efficiency & GHG mitigation and renewables & advocacy ratings were improved from D to C. Only the energy transparency rating wasn’t changed – it’s still D.
Greenpeace wasn’t shy of praising Apple for its coal free commitment, mentioning that it is “welcome news for the 125 million current iCloud users and represents a significant improvement in Apple’s choices.” Yet, the short praise quickly transformed into a very skeptic and critical analysis of Apple’s new commitments. Greenpeace’s two main arguments were that it’s not clear yet how Apple intends to meet its goals and that Apple doesn’t seem to be going far enough.
Take for example Apple’s data center in Newark, California, which Apple aims to make coal free and 100 percent renewable powered by February 2013. Greenpeace writes that while Apple revealed that it had recently been granted approval for “direct access” energy contracts for the data center that will allow Apple to buy renewable energy directly from the wholesale market, it has not provided specifics on where this energy will come from.
In the case of Apple’s newest data center in Prineville, Oregon, Greenpeace also asks for further information to understand how the company will meet its commitment to have a 100 percent renewable powered and coal-free data center there. According to Greenpeace Apple said it has 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 to completely meet the needs of the facility,” Apple is quoted in the report. Greenpeace wonders though who these providers are and if Apple is not planning to buy its electricity from a local subsidiary of PacifiCorp along with Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), “a strategy which will not result in any less coal being burned by PacifiCorp.”
When it comes to the data center in Maiden, North Carolina, Greenpeace has more expectations from Apple other than just making it “100% renewable & coal-free.” Greenpeace is challenging Apple to “use its influence and buying power to demand a cleaner electricity supply from Duke Energy, the only electric utility in the state, and one that is heavily invested in coal and nuclear power.”
In all, Greenpeace explains the new commitment Apple has made is a positive step, but it also puts the company in a position where it has choices to make at each of its data center locations on how to fulfill this commitment. Apple can decide in each of its current or future data centers between a less meaningful choice and a more meaningful one, like in Reno, NV, where the company needs to choose between a renewable powered local utility and a coal-powered local utility and buying renewable energy credits from them.
From the report it seems obvious that Greenpeace suspects Apple will choose the latter rather than the former. This lack of trust in Apple has probably to do with the fact that Apple seems to refuse to cooperate with Greenpeace and “continues to be quite selective in disclosing the energy related details of its iCloud.”
This might not be too surprising given Apple’s general CSR approach, but still following the clash between Apple and Greenpeace on the data published in the original report one would expect Apple to reevaluate its approach. After all, a smarter engagement and further transparency could easily help to ensure this move will be portrayed in a much more positive light. However Apple still doesn’t believe in it. Not yet at least.
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 Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.