updated 12:59 am EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Data centers, some stores already off the grid; suppliers next
In a new report for the UK newspaper The Guardian, Apple Senior VP of Environmental Initiatives Lisa Jackson has acknowledged that the company needs to do more to facilitate more use of renewable energy by its suppliers and partners as well as itself. The iPhone maker has had tremendous success in converting its data centers to renewable energy, and has implemented similar measures in 120 of its stores. The next target, the paper says, is its Arizona sapphire glass plant.
"We know that our customers expect us to do the right thing about these issues," said Jackson, noting that because it has already done a significant amount to utilize renewable resources better, the company's supply chain now makes up 70 percent of Apple's total carbon footprint. The new problem has become the focus for Jackson, starting with US manufacturing facilities more under Apple's direct control.
The company is said to be planning to convert the Arizona plant to use solar and geothermal power. "Apple would not directly comment on the Arizona factory, but the state's governor, Jan Brewer, has publicly praised the company's decision to relocate there and to use solar and geothermal in manufacturing," said the newspaper.
Jackson was again leading journalists on a rare tour of Apple's Maiden, North Carolina data center, which it uses for iCloud operations and as a model of what the company has accomplished so far. The data center uses about three times as much electricity as the town itself, enough to power roughly 14,000 homes on a yearly basis.
"If you are using your iPhone, iPad, Siri or downloading a song, you don't have to worry if you are contributing to the climate change problem in the world because Apple has already thought about that for you," Jackson said. "We've taken care of that. We're using clean energy." She added that on any given day, 100 percent of the power the data center needed is being provided through a combination of solar and biogas. Apple is currently building a third solar plant, roughly the same size as the first two, to keep it "off the grid" as much as possible, even in adverse weather.
That said, a facility such as a data center will always need the grid to be there as a fallback, noted a Duke Energy spokesperson. The energy company has courted data centers in North Carolina as a replacement for the drop in farming and textile manufacturing power needs, and sees the large energy requirements of data facilities as good for its existing grid infrastructure and, of course, profits. Working with Apple, Duke launched a program to encourage other major power users to leverage more renewable resource energy either through solar farms or credits, but none have signed up so far.
Renewable energy accounts for barely two percent of the power generated in North Carolina presently, though this is a doubling of the amount generated before Apple arrived on the scene. Jackson noted that the Maiden facility generates 160 million kilowatt hours currently. Though the long-term cost of renewable energy investments has dropped significantly enough to make it worthwhile, most companies are still unsure of the reliability and short-term cost of green power -- impressions that Apple's working example hopes to dispel.
Other tech companies are increasingly investing in renewable-resource energy as well. Google powers about a third of its data centers through green power, and Facebook's Iowa facility runs entirely off wind power, the company says. Microsoft has announced it will build a second wind farm in Illinois to help power its data centers. "There is an opportunity in getting ahead of the trend to move towards being self-sufficient on energy and in using clean energy," Jackson said. "It's something our customers value."
Consumer advocates claim that Duke is trying to have it both ways, by encouraging corporations that want to go green by offering cheap credits for renewable power, but actively discouraging homeowners from utilizing rooftop solar and other options. Apple itself still receives some criticism for still relying mostly on Chinese and Taiwanese suppliers that rely heavily on "dirty" energy such as coal and nuclear power.
Jackson, who has had a policy of confronting such issues head-on, said that Apple "is aware that almost 70 percent of our carbon footprint is in our supply chain. We are actively working on the facilities that we have here in the United States." In the video report, she also mentions that Apple believes "that part of our responsibility is to be responsible for our products -- and the material in our products, all the way through their life cycle."
"I don't want to make promises about how we're going to attack the supply chain [in terms of encouraging greener energy usage] ... and of course those are facilities we don't own, so we're going to have to work with our partners there to build capacity and figure out how to address it," Jackson said. However, it's evident that the current plan includes expanding initiatives on facilities Apple already owns or controls, such as the Arizona plant and its retail stores. The company's current headquarters was retrofitted for solar power, and the new forthcoming "spaceship" Campus 2 is being built with renewable energy as a core element of the design.
Jackson and Apple's commitment to the issues have won over previous critics, such as Greenpeace. The environmental group once protested over Apple's reliance on Duke Energy (which mostly offers nuclear and coal-based power), but has changed its tune as Apple's plan has unfolded. Greenpeace spokesperson David Pomerantz told the paper that Apple is "the gold standard in the state right now. There are a lot of data centers in North Carolina, and definitely none has moved as aggressively as Apple has to power with renewable energy."