It seems that these days, everywhere you look, journalists and environmental activists are praising Apple for powering its data centers with “100 percent renewable energy,” as the company puts it.
Greenpeace named Apple tops in its 2015 “Clicking Clean” report and commended the company for being transparent about its energy use, pledging to power its data centers entirely with renewable energy, seeking to reduce and mitigate its carbon footprint, and advancing the cause of renewable energy by pushing utility companies to make it available to both large and small customers.
Countless headlines praising Apple followed the May 2015 publication of the Greenpeace report, and many others lauded the company’s announced plans to pursue renewable energy initiatives for facilities in Arizona, Denmark, Ireland and China.
But dig below the slick PR surface of Apple’s claims and the celebratory headlines, and one finds that the jewel of Apple’s data centers, its facility in Maiden, North Carolina, is not powered by renewable energy at all, though the company states in its 2014 Environmental Responsibility Report that it has been “100% renewable since opening June 2010.”
The company’s claims that its data centers are powered by “100% renewable energy” are simply not true.
Since 2013, Apple has gone to great lengths to assert this point. On its environmental website Apple notes that powering the data center with “renewable sources,” along with several other corporate facilities, was a highlight of 2012. Remarking on Apple’s accomplishments in 2013, the website states that the company “powers all its data centers … with 100 percent renewable energy.”
Getting down to the details, Apple reports in its 2015 Environmental Responsibility Report that 76 percent of the data center’s energy was generated on-site by two photovoltaic solar arrays and its fleet of biogas-powered fuel cells (about 20 percent each per solar array, and 37 percent from the fuel cells). Apple states that the remainder of the energy required to power the center was provided by NC GreenPower.
But all of this is a lie. The company actually buys all of the energy it needs for this facility from Duke Energy Carolinas (Duke), which by March 2015 had less than 0.02 percent renewable energy in its grid mix. About 33 percent of the energy Duke sells comes from nuclear, half is from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), and 15 percent comes from hydroelectric sources.
The several-year-old relationship between Apple and Duke was first made public by an April 2012 report by Robert McMillan for Wired, which referenced an internal Duke document that describes in detail how Duke landed Apple as a customer. (Following McMillan’s article, Duke scrubbed the document from their website, but Wired archived the PDF.)
To Apple’s credit, though the company’s executives are lying about using it, Apple is in fact generating 167 million kilowatt-hours of renewable energy at the facility via its two solar arrays and fuel cells. However, for unknown reasons, Apple chooses to sell the energy it creates to Duke. Sam Watson, general counsel of the North Carolina Utilities Commission, confirmed this arrangement in June 2015.
Purchasing offsets is not the same as actually powering something with renewable energy.
But what about the energy Apple says that it is buying from NC GreenPower to provide the final 24 percent of the center’s needs? That energy does not exist. Instead, Apple buys renewable energy certificates to offset its reliance on Duke’s dirty energy. Katie Shepherd Lebrato, the marketing and communications manager of NC GreenPower, confirmed that Apple has had this arrangement in place since 2012.
That Lebrato dates the relationship between NC GreenPower and Apple to 2012 raises questions about whether or not Apple actually offset the energy needs of the center, which came online in 2010, with renewable energy certificates from another source. Apple purchased the land for the center and began construction on it in 2009, but there is no mention of it in the company’s discussion of renewable energy initiatives in its 2010 Facilities Report, nor in the 2011 report.
The first official mention of the Maiden data center came in Apple’s 2012 Facilities Report, which suggested that it would be powered by renewable energy at some point in the future. Then, in its 2013 report, Apple provided a lengthy and contradictory description of how it powers the center, stating that the renewable energy it generates on-site “displaces dirtier forms of energy, such as coal,” but then states that it purchases renewable energy certificates from NC GreenPower because direct access to renewable sources is not available in the state.
What all of this amounts to is a boldfaced lie on Apple’s part. The company’s claims that its data centers are powered by “100% renewable energy” are simply not true, given that the Maiden center – one of the company’s largest – is powered by a mix of nuclear and fossil fuels. Through generating solar and fuel cell energy on-site, selling it to Duke and by purchasing renewable energy certificates, what Apple is actually doing is offsetting the carbon footprint of this center.
This is a common practice for companies seeking to mitigate their production of greenhouse gases. It’s likely also something that many of Truthout’s readers have done to offset emissions from air travel.
But the fact of the matter is, purchasing offsets is not the same as actually powering something with renewable energy. The big difference lies in the very real carbon dioxide emissions that are created by the operation of this data center.
Apple’s data shows that annual emissions from this facility are on an upward trajectory.
Explaining why this distinction matters, Dr. Christine Shearer, program director at CoalSwarm, said the problem with offsets and renewable energy certificates is that “the reduction in overall emissions is hard to verify. The projects are difficult to separate from reductions that would have occurred regardless, and they can create perverse incentives to keep polluting activities legal.”
An Apple spokesperson who the author has previously communicated with did not respond to questions sent by email at the end of July about why Apple is misrepresenting how the Maiden data center is powered, and why it began lying after initially telling the truth about it (albeit in an obscure manner). This email also included a request for emissions data for the center for fiscal years 2009 and 2010.
However, chronology suggests that this misrepresentation is a cornerstone of the company’s environmentally oriented rebranding effort that launched in 2013 and included the hiring of Lisa Jackson, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in the position of vice president for environmental initiatives (now vice president for environment, policy and social initiatives). This branding effort and the energy initiatives tied to it focused on Apple’s data centers after the company’s reliance on fossil fuel energy was publicly criticized by Greenpeace.
Jackson told this lie in her first formal dispatch for the company – a blog posted in honor of Earth Day on Apple’s site in 2014. In it, she wrote, “every one of our data centers is powered entirely by clean sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal energy. So whenever you download a song, update an app, or ask Siri a question, the energy Apple uses is provided by nature.” This post was accompanied by a photo of one of the solar arrays in Maiden.
Since then, the lie has been a centerpiece of Apple’s environmentally oriented branding, “offsetting” examination of the actual carbon emissions generated by this facility.
In 2014 alone, by sourcing its power from Duke, the Maiden data center generated 92,306 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions – a figure helpfully provided by Apple in its 2015 Environmental Responsibility Report, meant to show how much emissions the center did not create.
Why has Apple, which initially told the truth about its energy acquisition, changed its tune to one that is patently false?
All told, the center, which has been operational since 2010, generated an estimated 243,928 metric tons of carbon dioxide through the fall of 2014. That’s equivalent to adding more than 51,000 passenger cars to the road, or burning 262 million pounds of coal. (This figure was reached using emissions data provided by Apple’s 2013 Facilities Report, and the “default emissions” listed in its 2014 and 2015 Environmental Responsibility Reports.)
Given that Apple still has the same deal in place with Duke for fiscal year 2015, it can be expected that the data center will produce at least another 92,306 metric tons of carbon dioxide – the 2014 figure – by fall of this year, and annually into the future.
In fact, Apple’s data shows that annual emissions from this facility are on an upward trajectory, having grown 43 percent from 2012 to 2013, and 22 percent from 2013 to 2014. Further, a 2015 permit granted to Apple by Catawba County shows that the company is in the process of building another data center next to the existing one that will increase energy needs at this location by 22 percent, and perhaps more in the future, given that the permit includes an additional 100,000 square foot parcel that is not yet in development.
What’s more, the “biogas” fuel cells Apple claims to draw 37 percent of the Maiden center’s power from are not actually powered by biogas, but regular old natural gas, according to an April 2012 legal filing to the North Carolina Utilities Commission on behalf of Apple. Here too, as it does with its solar arrays and renewable energy certificates, Apple creates an offset for its energy consumption by purchasing and pumping actual biogas into natural gas pipelines, location unknown.
And when Duke’s grid fails, Apple will rely on backup diesel-powered generators to run the facility, which can burn as much as 429,600 gallons of diesel fuel stored in on-site tanks, according to a March 2015 permit filed with the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission. According to the EPA, this equates to another 4,325 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions just waiting to be expelled at this “renewably powered” data center.
So the question remains, why lie? Why has Apple, which initially told the truth about its energy acquisition and usage in North Carolina, changed its tune to one that is patently false? Is claiming that its data centers are “100% powered by renewable energy” really that important to the company’s $118 billion brand? Perhaps so, given how many journalists and activists have happily parroted this claim.
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