Greenpeace vs. Apple Feud Fueled by Strange Math

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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.”

About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor-in-chief 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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8 Comments

  1. Dear Data Center Knowledge Contrary to what is suggested in this article, Greenpeace has absolutely no interest in exaggerating the estimates of Apple's power demand in North Carolina nor or of any company, anywhere.   While our job would be easier if we could just accept the information provided by Apple or others as the full story, our experience in evaluating a broad range of sectors has proven time and again that we shouldn’t simply take companies’ publicly available data at face value. While Apple claims its $1Billion Maiden, NC data center will require 20MW electricity at full capacity, the documents associated with its latest facility just announced near Reno, NV, also announced as a $1 billion investment, indicate an ultimate power demand of approximately 70MW. It would be very surprising that two similar sized data center investments by the same company would result in radically differing energy demands. Similarly, the backup generator permits Apple has thus far secured in North Carolina clearly indicate that Apple is already anticipating a larger energy footprint than 20MW. But the bigger issue is the lack of transparency on the energy use of data centers which remains a significant barrier to evaluating the environmental impact of a particular company or data center, as highlighted in our report, ‘How Clean Is Your Cloud?’ Unfortunately, Apple declined to provide energy use data for its Maiden facility prior to the report launch in April and had similarly failed to submit a 2011 report to the Carbon Disclosure Project. Our updated evaluation nonetheless takes their most recent announcements into account. Greenpeace certainly welcomes the announcement by Apple that it intends to become coal free and 100% renewably powered. This could set a transformative new bar for other companies, given Apple’s leadership position within the sector.  However, as we outlined in our Clean Energy Roadmap for Apple released last Thursday, there are a number of missing details for how this will be achieved and maintained, which are more than just semantics. North Carolina for example, has an electricity mix of only 4% renewable energy, with little prospect for change from supplier Duke Energy. Hence it is unclear how the iDatacenter in Maiden will live up to Apple’s ‘coal free’ claims.  To reach its goal of 100% renewable energy, Apple is going to have to demonstrate stronger leadership and demand a cleaner power supply from Duke. The electricity demand of the sector is unquestionably significant, and is expected to undergo tremendous growth in the coming ten years and beyond. Apple's rapid scaling of its data center investments in North Carolina, Oregon, and now Reno are a clear demonstration of this rapid growth, and the challenges it faces in securing a supply of renewable energy are broadly shared within the data center sector.  We look forward to an opportunity to sit down with Apple and other leading data center operators to overcome these challenges, and make renewable energy available for everyone.  

  2. Gary, Thanks for sharing more of Greenpeace's perspective. Your comments conveniently fail to address one of the key questions about the latest Greenpeace's report - if Apple only has permits for 41 MW of generators, how could it possibly be using 81 MW of power? You noted the relevance of the generator permits in one of your blog posts when you were challenging Apple's 20 MW claim. You clearly thought the generator permits were relevant in that context. For the purpose of evaluating the amount of energy Apple is using in Maiden, the generator permits are a more precise and more relevant indicator than the $1 billion investment figure. It's not from the company, but from a state agency that must approve any generator installations. So why not use the generator permits?

  3. H.N.

    How does Greenpeace explain the fact that Apple's Maiden datacenter is certified LEED PLATINUM by the USGBC, making it one of top 15 datacenters in the World in terms of its sustainability performance?