Apple, Google race to reduce greenhouse gas footprints

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, April 25, 2014

Technology giants Apple Inc. and Google Inc., marked this year’s Earth Day by applying new polish to their clean energy credentials and, in the case of Apple, sending a clear signal to its customers and the public that the company is working hard to become one of the world’s most eco-friendly brands.In what may be her highest-profile acts since joining Apple as vice president of environmental initiatives almost a year ago, former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson gave a series of media interviews this week and posted a five-paragraph letter on Apple’s revamped environmental website detailing the company’s continued path toward environmental sustainability. Yet, she acknowledged more work needs to be done.

“We aim to create not just the best products in the world, but the best products for the world,” Jackson wrote.

Meanwhile, Apple Chairman and CEO Tim Cook narrated a nearly 2-minute video in which he pledges the company will do even more — such as building a manufacturing plant that relies only on clean energy and designing products from recycled materials — stressing Apple’s institutional goal to perform “better.”

“We have a long way to go and a lot to learn,” Cook says. “But now, more than ever, we will work to leave the world better than we found it and make the tools that inspire others to do the same.”

Among Apple’s environmental highlights for 2013 are a 169 percent increase in renewable energy consumption by the company’s facilities worldwide, including 100 percent of all energy used by the firm’s data centers in North Carolina, Oregon and Nevada, where billions of bits of data are stored on massive servers that run all day, every day.

At its Maiden, N.C., and Reno, Nev., data centers, Apple will rely on electricity from large solar arrays that it is building on-site. And many of the company’s corporate offices and retail stores are being powered by renewable energy either generated on-site or purchased from local utilities.

Revising reporting methods

Apple also revised its methods for reporting greenhouse gases to better reflect its life-cycle analysis approach to environmental metrics. As a result, the company recorded a 9 percent increase in total greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 — roughly 33.8 million metric tons — rather than a 10 percent drop that would have resulted under the old reporting system, according to the company.

Jackson also announced that Apple would freely accept discarded Apple hardware at any of its U.S. retail stores and recycle it, in keeping with the company’s pledge to “be accountable for every Apple product at every stage of its use.”

While Apple’s messaging was more scripted and big-picture focused, its largest rival, Google, used the Earth Day platform to announce its latest investment in third-party solar financing and a new power purchase agreement that will bring up to 407 megawatts of Iowa wind energy to Google’s Council Bluffs data center and other potential sites where the company may expand in Iowa.

The wind power will come from MidAmerican Energy, the Des Moines-based utility and wholesale power producer owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. The deal is the largest of seven contracts that Google has signed with renewable energy producers in the U.S. and abroad totaling an estimated 1,040 MW of electric capacity.

Google’s new solar investment, amounting to $100 million, comes via a new partnership with SunPower Corp. of San Jose, Calif., which will also contribute $150 million to help finance thousands of new rooftop residential arrays under SunPower’s solar lease program.

The investment is Google’s second largest of three major cash outlays to advance residential solar power development. In 2011, the company put $280 million behind a similar third-party lease agreement financing program in conjunction with SolarCity Corp., the nation’s largest solar company. Months later, Google invested an additional $75 million in a partnership with San Francisco-based Clean Power Finance, a financial services and software provider to the solar industry.

Green groups praise some, attack others

In a blog post on Google’s corporate website, Rob Parker, the company’s renewable energy asset manager, said Google has to date committed more than $1 billion to clean energy projects, adding that “we’re always on the hunt for new opportunities to make more renewable energy available to more people — Earth Day and every day.”

Apple, too, has made substantial investments in renewable energy resources, including its North Carolina and Nevada solar arrays and the recent purchase of a small hydroelectric dam in Oregon that will help power the company’s Prineville Data Center. Apple also contracted to buy locally sourced wind energy to run the Oregon data center and has raised the prospect of building a solar panel next to the facility.

In an interview this week with Greenwire, Jackson noted that data centers, while integral to Apple’s operations, are huge consumers of electricity. So, “for us, being able to say we know we have a stable and reliable supply of clean energy is a huge advantage,” she said (Greenwire, April 23).

Environmental groups have also warmed to the computer and information technology giant’s improved environmental performance. Just two years ago, Greenpeace International excoriated Apple and several other leading IT companies for relying on coal and nuclear power to run their energy-hungry data centers.

Apple vigorously defended its record following the Greenpeace report, but it also committed at the time to making all of its iCloud data centers “coal-free” by 2013. The nonprofit later revised its assessment of Apple based on such pledges.

And in its latest ratings of IT companies relying heavily on cloud storage technologies, Greenpeace placed Apple at the head of the pack, along with Google and Facebook. “Apple is the most improved company since our last full report, and has shown itself to be the most innovative and most aggressive in pursuing its commitment to be 100 percent renewably powered,” Greenpeace said.

Amazon Web Services, a division of Inc., and Twitter Inc., two of the nation’s biggest IT brands, earned some of the lowest marks in Greenpeace’s rankings of 19 firms. As Apple did following the 2012 report, officials with Amazon disputed the report’s findings, saying they were based on inaccurate data and wrong assumptions (Greenwire, April 3).