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Apple: Greenpeace’s Cloud Math is Busted

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A view of the huge roof of the Apple data center in Maiden, North Carolina. Apple said today that the facility will use 20 megawatts of power, far less than an estimate by Greenpeace. (Image: Apple).

Apple says it will use 20 megawatts of power at full capacity in its North Carolina data center, about one-fifth the amount estimated by Greenpeace in a report that is sharply critical of Apple and other data center operators for relying upon “dirty” energy sources to power their cloud computing operations.

Apple’s statement raises questions about the credibility of the estimates in the Greenpeace report, and illustrates the difficulty of seeking to estimate data center power usage – a detail that many companies are unwilling to disclose on their own.

Greenpeace has estimated that Apple will use 100 megawatts of power at the facility in Maiden, North Carolina. Greenpeace’s Gary Cook used that estimate to downplay the significance of Apple’s substantial investment in on-site renewable power in Maiden, which includes a 20 megawatt solar array and a  biogas-powered fuel cell with a 5 megawatt capacity.

“While much has been made of this announcement, it will cover only 10 percent of their total generation for the data center,” Greenpeace said in its report, How Clean is Your Cloud?, which has received widespread media attention today. But Apple says that isn’t the case at all.

“Our data center in North Carolina will draw about 20 megawatts at full capacity, and we are on track to supply more than 60% 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,” Apple said in a statement. “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% renewable energy.”

Greenpeace has also assumed that Apple would use coal-sourced power in its Prineville, Oregon data center and factored that assumption into its Clean Energy Index ranking of 15.3 for Apple, far below the scores given to Facebook (36.4), Google (39.4) and Yahoo (56.4).

Apple would clearly receive a much higher score if Greenpeace used a 20 megawatt base to evaluate its coal-sourced power.  In effect, the current score whacks Apple for 80 megawatts of “dirty” power that it’s not using.

So how could Greenpeace have been so far off base? For its starting point, Greenpeace’s math is based on the $1 billion Apple has said it will invest in the facility in Maiden, North Carolina. After Apple released its statement, Greenpeace’s Cook posted a response:

“We made estimates of power demand using fairly conservative industry benchmarks for data centre investments: 1MW of power demand from servers for every $15 million, though the number is often closer to $8 million for many companies. Thus, a $1 billion investment should net Apple 66MW of computer power demand.  Assuming a fairly standard energy efficiency factor for new data centres for non-computer energy demand of 50% gives you a 100MW  data center.  While Apple is well known for making more expensive consumer products, if Apple’s plans for the $1 billion investment only generates 20MW in power demand, that would be taking the ‘Apple premium’ to a whole new level.”

An obvious gap in that logic is that it doesn’t account for Apple’s investment in the solar array and fuel cell technology being built to support the iDataCenter – costs that are atypical for data center construction and not included in comparative metrics. In developing its clean energy index for Apple, Greenpeace appears to have failed to account for the cost of the company’s clean energy.

Some approaches to data center power estimation use the square footage of the data center as a starting point. This can also result in apples-versus-oranges comparisons, as data center workloads can vary widely in the density of their compute infrastructure, which is guided by the applications the facility is supporting.

Data centers also use different amounts of space for non-compute infrastructure such as the power and cooling equipment. While Apple’s Maiden data center is 500,000 square feet in total area, about 184,000 square feet of that is dedicated to data halls for servers, compared to 262,000 square feet of space supporting mechanical and electrical systems.

About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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32 Comments

  1. Jen

    The Greenpeace report is very credible. It may ruffle a few feathers of organizations that are not used to answering questions, but they'll get over it and grow. If these public companies practiced greater transparency and let their stakeholders know more about what they're doing, then the problems with obtaining accurate information would disappear. Shareholders would certainly like to know the facts about the companies that they own.

  2. David L

    The $1 billion figure is from Apple's original 2009 announcement of the data center, and does not include the solar panel farm and fuel cells, which were only announced recently. It is unclear whether or not the $1 billion includes those structures. Greenpeace has made an assessment based on the data currently available. Your criticism takes Apple's response at face value - a self-interested institution looking to protect it's image.

  3. Tom

    As a public company Apple is, if a strong statement like this is found not to be true in the future, it will only cause them eventually more damage to their image. I see no motivation for Apple to lie and a strong motivation not to lie.

  4. Jen

    How Clean is your Cloud - Apple responds Blogpost by Gary Cook - April 17, 2012 at 20:07 Add comment Our new report “How Clean is Your Cloud” is out today - to show that the massive increase in Internet use is mainly being powered by dirty energy. Apple, Amazon and Microsoft all score badly in the report for relying on dirty coal and dangerous nuclear power for their data centres. Since 2010, and again in 2011, we have been calling on all the major Internet companies to come clean about the amount and type of power behind the Internet services we use everyday. Today Apple responded (via the New York Times): In a statement issued in response to the report, Apple disclosed for the first time that the data center would consume about 20 million watts at full capacity - much lower than Greenpeace's estimate, which is 100 million watts. In territory served by Duke, a million watts is enough to power 750 to 1,000 homes. Kristin Huguet, a spokeswoman for Apple, added that the company is building two large projects intended to offset energy use from the grid in North Carolina: an array of solar panels and a set of fuel cells. While it is good to see Apple acknowledge it should reveal more details of the energy consumption of its data centres, the information they released today does not add up with what they have reported to be the size of the investment and physical size of the data centre. When Apple announced they were building a data centre in North Carolina, they announced a commitment to invest $1 Billion (USD) over 10 years. For a number of the facilities in the “How Clean is Your Cloud?” report, we made estimates of power demand using fairly conservative industry benchmarks for data centre investments: 1MW of power demand from servers for every $15 million, though the number is often closer to $8 million for many companies. Thus, a $1 billion investment should net Apple 66MW of computer power demand. Assuming a fairly standard energy efficiency factor for new data centres for non-computer energy demand of 50% gives you a 100MW data center. While Apple is well known for making more expensive consumer products, if Apple's plans for the $1 billion investment only generates 20MW in power demand, that would be taking the “Apple premium” to a whole new level. Size Matters The size of the facility at 500,000 sq foot would also indicate a much larger power demand. Amazon's chief web engineer recently conservatively estimated that based just on the size of the facility, the iDatacenter would consume at least 78MW, and speculated that it is probably higher. We made these estimates because companies like Apple and Amazon have not disclosed details of how much energy data centres use now and will in the future. We provided Apple with our data prior to releasing the “How Clean is Your Cloud?” report, and while they did not agree with our estimate, they declined to provide specific information on their energy demand. While we welcome Apple's attempt today to provide more specific details on its North Carolina iData Center, it does not appear to have provided the full story, and is instead seeking to provide select pieces of information to make their dirty energy footprint seem smaller. The IT industry can be a part of the solution to old-fashioned problems like emissions from coal. Some companies, like Google, Yahoo and Facebook are already doing that, by taking steps to move toward powering their clouds with clean energy, not coal or nuclear. This campaign is creating an opportunity for Apple to join them and start becoming a part of the solution to climate change, so that we can deal with emissions from the growth of 'cloud computing' before it becomes an irreversible problem. Step one in seizing this opportunity is for companies to be transparent about their energy use. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/Cool-IT/how-clean-is-your-cloud-apple-responds/blog/40003/

  5. Nuclear!! I don't know why all of the sensationalists stories miss this. The Apple data center is less than 20 miles from a nuclear power plant. That's about as clean as power gets (unless there is a disaster). So, while North Carolina may have a number of coal plants in other parts of the state, Apple's data center (and Google's just a few miles away) are almost certainly getting nuclear power.

  6. Jen, In case you didn't actually read our story, we've already provided a link to Gary Cook's post from our article and included an excerpt from his post. But here's a key question we have asked Greenpeace, which is not addressed in its response: If Apple’s energy use in Maiden is adjusted from 100 megawatts to 20 megawatts, what would Apple’s score be on the Clean Energy Index? I have posed this question to Gary Cook, but have not yet received a response. Greenpeace also prepared its report assuming Apple will use coal-sourced power in Oregon. The company now says its Prineville facility will be powered completely by renewable energy. Would this affect Apple's index rating? Again, Data Center Knowledge posed this question to Greenpeace and it has not responded. Greenpeace has rightfully called for better disclosure of data center energy usage from major companies. Now that Apple has provided disclosure, will Greenpeace use that data in its calculations?

  7. Les, Greenpeace's origins are as an anti-nuclear organization... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenpeace#Origins

  8. NK

    Green fascists are against nuclear because it,s cost-competitive. Anything that will do won't do because that cuts them out - no subsidies, feed in tarrifs, no forced quotas, etc. :-)

  9. Well the same way we have to take Apple's comments with a grain of salt, we also have to take Greenpeace's, or else we forget that they are as well a self-interest organization, like PETA for instance, they are always trying to find the next scandal or just make a scene to make them seem more important to everyone, little issues or less popular ones are of little consequence. Greenpeace is all about the stunts so they get more members and more money, not to say that sometimes they arent right, but that a lot of times its all about the show, merit is an afterthought, and in this case going after Apple is a stunt, plenty of datacenters from unknown corporations that im sure are poorly built, so how about contacting Apple first? Getting real life specs, before making claims and assumptions, who knows best? the guys making the datacenter of the guys watching from outside? Hey, don't take my word for it ... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Greenpeace

  10. melgross

    I was one of the first members of Greenpeace, but left the organization 20 years ago. Unfortunately, they are more interested in their own fortunes these days than truth. I see a fair amount of error in many of their reports, and they don't seem to be interested in cleaning that up. Apple should bow to a marketing tool of allowing Greenpeace to visit their facility, and check on some of these factors themselves. Then they won't be able to say what they do. It's very unlikely that Apple would have stated that their facility would use 20MW where Greenpeace claims 100, if they weren't sure of their numbers. Outside estimates of these numbers are very problematic.

  11. Chuck, True that is GreenPeace's origin (and I would take issue with them characterizing nuclear as 'dirty'). However, this article states "... to evaluate its coal-sourced power." This article clearly characterizes Apple's power as coal based. Greenpeace may have that wrong as well, but it is a journalists job to fact check. Frankly, Greenpeace has an agenda. I know that and get that. I expect them, like other political entities to act in their own interest with their reports. However, I have seen this rumor perpetuated in the past and I find it deplorable that not one of the sites reporting this assertion has checked to see what the energy sources are fueling the data center. Sites like this may not be considered obligated to journalistic ethics. However, it speaks to the trustworthiness. If you are not fact checking this story, which other stories are also factually unverified?

  12. Les: We've previously reported on the high nuclear content of the energy used by Apple in North Carolina. From April 2011: "Duke Energy, the local utility, currently sources 52 percent of its energy in the Carolinas from nuclear power, 37 percent from fossil fuels, and 7 percent from forms of hydro-electric power." We also noted Greenpeace's position on nuclear power: "Greenpeace objects to coal because of its impact on the environment, and opposes nuclear energy 'because of its unacceptable risk to the environment and human health.' The group says expansion of nuclear power should be halted, and calls for the shutdown of all existing nuclear power plants."

  13. HiGuy

    hypocritical libs, who jump on others, while having no comprehension of what they are talking about!!? Oh my! What a shocker!!

  14. Apple should look at www.ecologicdata.com for a solution to their problems.

  15. Daniel

    Another aspect, if the iDataCenter (or any other cloud computing data center for that matter) didn't exist, would that mean no impact on the environment? Probably not. Instead people would be keeping their backups, doing their syncs and whatnot on personal computers in their homes instead. If a million people are using a 250W (including the screen) personal computer and a 10W tablet for three hours a day, that's 750+30 MWh a day. If we could replace those personal computers with a datacenter consuming 20MW 24 hours a day, we'd get 480+30 MWh instead. Building one datacenter is probably more resource efficient than shipping a million personal computers too. A big datacenter probably serves more than a million users, but well, I think I've made my point.