The exterior of the Apple data center facility in Maiden, North Carolina Apple
The exterior of the Apple data center facility in Maiden, North Carolina

Greenpeace vs. Apple Feud Fueled by Strange Math

Greenpeace has issued a "regrading" of Apple's data centers that gives the company Cs and Ds - as opposed to its earlier Ds and Fs. But the environmental group continues to use an estimate of Apple's power use in its North Carolina data center that is four times higher than Apple's numbers.

The exterior of the Apple data center facility in Maiden, North Carolina (Source: Apple)

Greenpeace has issued a "regrading" of its report card on Apple's data center energy that gives the company Cs and Ds - as opposed to the Ds and Fs in an April report. But the environmental group continues to use an estimate of Apple's power use in its North Carolina data center that is four times higher than Apple's numbers. The report raises new questions about the credibility of Greenpeace's estimates, which ignore the company's statements as well as permit data for generators that suggests far lower levels of energy usage by Apple's site in Maiden, North Carolina.

Rather than applauding Apple for its unprecedented efforts to introduce on-site generation of renewable energy at its data center, the new Greenpeace report, A Clean Energy Road Map for Apple (PDF) calls Apple's efforts inadequate and seeks initial disclosures about the company's energy use.

In its initial report in April, Greenpeace estimated Apple's power use in North Carolina at a whopping 100 megawatts. The group has reduced that slightly to 81 megawatts, dismissing the company's disclosure that it expects draw about 20 megawatts at full capacity. Strangely, the Greenpeace report notes that Apple currently has state permits for backup generators providing up to 41 megawatts of power - a data point that suggests Greenpeace's estimate is significantly off base. Greenpeace's math assumes that Apple is providing only enough backup power to support half of its total power requirement, a configuration inconsistent with industry practices.

Generator Data Suggests Lower Power Total

In its permit application, Apple indicated that it plans to use an "N+2" configuration for its generators, an approach in which it uses generators to support the facility's full load, and also has at least two additional backup generators available in case any of the primary generators fail. The permit application for 24 2.25 megawatt generators and N+2 configuration suggest an upper limit for Apple's energy use of just north of 35 megawatts - more than the company has acknowledged, but dramatically lower than the Greenpeace estimates.

Greenpeace says it "uses a calculation based on Apple’s US$1 billion investment in the facility, subtracting its US$100 million investment toward onsite renewable energy generation capacity. Using an estimated power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 1.35, the calculation arrives at a total demand of 81 MW for the facility."

This approach based on announced investment was called into question after the 100 megawatt estimate was published. Greenpeace's continuing use of this methodology, in light of Apple's disclosure and permit data, raises several possibilities:

  • Greenpeace is having difficulty developing estimates that accurately incorporate data center operations and power usage.
  • Greenpeace is predisposed to cling to estimates that make Apple look less "green" because it generates more headlines for its awareness campaigns.

As we've previously noted, the Greenpeace reports illustrate the difficulty of seeking to estimate data center power usage – a detail that many companies are unwilling to disclose on their own. Greenpeace has consistently called for improved energy disclosures by data center operators.  At Data Center Knowledge, we have reported data-based and company-sourced information on data center energy usage for years, as this is a major component of the larger industry discussion on energy efficiency and environmental impact.

Discounting Apple's Investment

Why is the accuracy of Greenpeace's estimate of Apple's energy use important? Because the group has 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 another 5 megawatts of on-site generation from Bloom fuel cells powered by biogas from landfills.

Upon the release of Greenpeace's April report, Apple said that  it will use 20 megawatts of power at full capacity. In its updated scoring, Greenpeace gives Apple zero credit for this disclosure, maintaining its score of D for transparency. "Apple continues to be quite selective in disclosing the energy-related details of its iCloud," writes Greenpeace.

Is Greenpeace being selective as well? Greenpeace's Gary Cook has said the group isn't purposely trying to be adversarial and use data center operators as foils for its headline-grabbing awareness campaigns, but rather to call for better disclosure by data center operators as part of a broader examination of sustainability. Yet with Apple, it has pursued a course of calling for more disclosure, and then refusing to believe the numbers that are disclosed.

At the very least, Greenpeace's report card is grading on a tough curve. Apple has said its data centers will be 100 percent green, including  two separate 100-acre solar arrays, 25 landfill-powered Bloom Box fuel cells, and a commitment to purchase "clean, renewable energy generated by local and regional sources” and renewable energy credits to account for the remainder of its carbon output. On the Greenpeace report card, that effort earns a C for "renewable energy investment and advocacy."

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