Greenpeace Says Apple, Amazon Clouds Are Dirty, But They Disagree

Photograph by Paul Edmondson/Corbis

Greenpeace gave Apple low marks for its failure to use clean energy to power the massive data centers that run its iTunes store and iCloud storage service.

In 2009, as Apple tried to prove its green credentials with environmentalists, Steve Jobs said he thought the company had made big strides to win over its loudest critic: Greenpeace International. After years of withering attacks, the group had tempered its comments as Apple talked increasingly about its efforts to make cleaner, more energy-efficient products.

“I thought they were being very unfair with us at the beginning, and that they were using us to get visibility,” the late Apple co-founder had said. “But we never disagreed with them about the fundamental goal. I’d like to think we’ve earned some credit.”

Evidently, not all that much.

In its latest report, Greenpeace gave Apple low marks for its use of clean energy to power the massive data centers that run its iTunes store and iCloud synchronization service. Apple earned no better than a “D” in the four categories analyzed in a report released today called “How Clean is Your Cloud?”

Of the 14 companies investigated, only Amazon and Twitter got a worse overall grade for categories that included companies’ public disclosure of data and their willingness to spell out ways to improve their energy plans. (See the report card at the bottom of this post.) Greenpeace also listed a clean energy index that ranks the companies by the amount of renewable energy they use as a percentage of their overall consumption. Apple was the sixth lowest on that list.

The basic charge is that Apple and many other large tech companies are not trying hard enough to use clean, renewable sources of energy in their data centers.

“Many IT companies are simply choosing to attach their modern information factories to some of the dirtiest sources of electricity, supplied by some of the dirtiest utilities on the planet,” read the report. “These utilities, unlike the IT companies, are not known for their innovation.”

Apple, for example, put its main data center in Maiden, North Carolina, and gets much of its electricity through coal-fired plants owned by Duke Energy. A new plant in Oregon will also likely be mostly coal-powered, according to Greenpeace, which estimates that Apple gets 55 percent of its electricity via coal. That’s a higher percentage than any of the other companies.

Greenpeace senior IT policy analyst Gary Cook, the lead author of the report, said Apple should use its cash and influence to buy cleaner energy, which would pressure Duke to do so as well.

“To do a clean iCloud, they need to demand better options from Duke,” he said.

In response to questions about Greenpeace’s report, Apple issued a written response to Bloomberg in which it revealed that its North Carolina data center will consume a maximum of 20 megawatts — far less than the 100 megawatts that Greenpeace estimated.

Apple also said it was “on track to supply more than 60 percent 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. We believe this industry leading project will make Maiden the greenest data center ever built, and it will be joined next year by our new facility in Oregon running on 100 percent renewable energy.”

In its study, Greenpeace estimated that the solar farm and fuel cell would satisfy only 10 percent of the energy required. Despite Apple’s plans for the future, the group gave the company a “D” for not using its huge cash reserves to buy cleaner forms of energy.

In an e-mail to Bloomberg reporter Jim Efstathiou, Duke Energy spokesman Thomas Williams said that 46 percent of Duke’s generating capacity in the Carolinas is coal-fired, compared with the U.S. average of 41 percent.

“We take strong exception to Greenpeace’s contention that our Carolina power is ‘dirty,’ since it’s consistent with the nation’s mix of coal,” Williams wrote. “What coal we do have is getting cleaner, and the majority of our power comes from emissions-free nuclear.”

Amazon also got poor marks, receiving an “F” for transparency because it provides little detail about the energy used to dole out its Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud computing offerings. The company does not contribute information to an industry group called the Carbon Disclosure Project. In addition, it got an “F” for its use of renewable energy sources.

“AWS does not appear to have made any purchases of investments in renewable electricity for its facilities,” Cook wrote. “AWS is currently falling out of step with other major cloud companies who are putting in place a long-term business strategy that accounts for impacts the company will face due to climate change.”

Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener said the company told Greenpeace weeks ago that the group’s data was inaccurate, though Amazon declined to release any numbers. He noted that having “hundreds of thousands of companies” rely on Amazon’s data centers rather than try to run their own is bound to be more energy efficient.

“The cloud enables a combined smaller carbon footprint that significantly reduces overall consumption,” Herdener said.

Cook agrees that the cloud is a better way to go, but that some clouds are cleaner than others.

Unlike Apple and Amazon, Twitter did not question the nonprofit’s findings. “The Greenpeace report raises important considerations around energy efficiency,” the company said. “We continue to strive for greater energy efficiency as we build out our infrastructure, and we look forward to sharing more on our efforts in this space in the coming months.”

The report gave good grades to Google, Yahoo and Facebook. Google has set up a quasi-utility called Google Energy that has inked long-term contracts to buy wind energy from NextEra Energy in Oklahoma and Iowa. Greenpeace said Google’s facilities use half the energy of the typical data center.

The group also credits Google for pledging to get 35 percent of its energy from renewable sources and for “its involvement in the lobbying debate to advance clean energy policies in the United States.”

Meanwhile, Yahoo located a new data center in upstate New York, where it draws heavily on hydro-power from the New York Power Authority.

Facebook’s new data center in Sweden can be run entirely on renewable energy, and the company has promised to do the same for its entire business.

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