Apple’s NC data center: transparency and the pressure to go green

Buried in last week’s catfight between Apple and Greenpeace over the energy sourcing for Apple’s new North Carolina data center and how clean it would be, was a surprising fact—that the conversation between Apple and Greenpeace was happening at all.

Apple almost never reveals early details of its operations and isn’t much known for feeling like it has to respond to specific charges from activists. But Apple quickly responded to the Greenpeace report with a statement, disclosing that its new data center would consume 20 megawatts and reminding everyone that the on site solar array and the fuel cells it’s building will offset any power it draws from North Carolina’s coal and nuclear powered grid. It added that its upcoming Oregon data center would be sourced from 100 percent renewable energy.

If there was one takeaway, it’s that even companies as opaque and powerful as Apple, feel they have to communicate that they are taking strides toward sourcing clean energy for their data centers. Greenpeace reported that data center power consumption will grow 19 percent this year alone as the global power draw for data centers tops 31 gigawatts, equal to about 45 coal power plants.

Apple presumably made the decision to build in North Carolina, just as Facebook has gone to Oregon, because of cheap power. But in the last few years so much attention has focused on how webscale IT giants are sourcing their power that having a cheap power source might be nice insurance if you want to expand, but the companies are going to wind up spending quite a few bucks on ensuring their power is relatively clean.

A word about the numbers and transparency

What emerged in the argument between Apple and Greenpeace’s Gary Cook, who authored the report, was, for the lack of a better word, odd. Cook had estimated that the data center would use 100 megawatts based on the billion dollar investment Apple was making. A 100 megawatts is much more than what Apple could generate from its on site renewable energy assets, and so Cook labeled the data center’s power as dirty and noted that renewables would only provide about 10 percent of the power.

Cook responded to Apple’s statement that the data center would draw 20 megawatts, not a 100 megawatts watts as he’d estimated, by basically saying he didn’t believe Apple, noting that dropping a billion to produce a 20 megawatt data center ‘would be taking the “Apple premium” to a whole new level.’  In fairness to Cook, Amazon’s data center efficiency guru James Hamilton himself estimated that the 500,000 square foot Apple facility would draw 78 megawatts, noting that clearing 171 acres of land to build a solar array still wouldn’t provide that significant a portion of the data center’s power needs. Data Center Knowledge’s Rich Miller stepped into the debate, saying about Cook’s analysis that “an obvious gap in logic” was that Cook’s accounting for Apple’s billion dollar investment didn’t take into account the cost of the renewable energy investment.

But those costs can be reasonably estimated. With solar projects costing around $3.50 per installed watt right now, the 20 megawatts of solar that Apple is putting in likely costs the company around $70 million. As for the 4.8 megawatts of fuel cell power, comprised of 24 200-kilowatt fuel cells,  they typically run around $800,000 per cell, adding about another $20 million to the renewable energy investment. Now throw in another $7-10 million for the 200 acre site (real estate hovers around $35,000/acre in Maiden, NC).

So we can estimate that Apple is dropping around a hundred million for its renewables project and with a comparable 28 megawatt Facebook data center costing $210 million, it’s still not completely clear how we get to a billion dollar investment. Though I take Apple at its word, that the data center will be 20 megawatts. Apple may be including ten years of operating expenses and maintenance into their total investment figures for the NC center, not just the up front capital investment, not to mention this is clearly a ten year project and we don’t yet know how Apple will fully use the site.

Now there’s a solution to these endless back of the envelope calculations that keep analysts like myself up at night. Given the large CO2 emissions associated with data centers and modern computing, companies like Apple could just disclose the power consumption of its data centers along with where they get their power. Google discloses its total electricity draw for the company, what percent is renewable, total metric tons of CO2 emissions, then makes the rest up with renewable energy credits. And maybe this last sentence was the purpose of Greenpeace’s report—to remind Apple that there’s a better way to do this.

Question of the week

How transparent should Apple be about its data center?

Today in Cleantech

Bryan Walsh at Time accurately points out this morning that the big winner in today’s EPA rules capping carbon emissions from power plants is natural gas. Coal has been on the way out with only one new coal plant, which has carbon capture technology, being built during the Obama administration. The new rules limit CO2 emissions for power plants to no more than 1000 lbs of CO2 per megawatt hour produced (coal averages around 1800 lbs, way outside that limit). Natural gas typically comes in at a bit under the 1000 lb limit.  And so, in line with Obama’s endorsement of natural gas during his state of the union speech in January, the U.S. goes down the road of a slightly less greenhouse gas emitting power source. As my weekly update points out, the price of natural gas is just so low that it carries the risk of slowing investment in renewables. Which is why as much as everyone hates regulation, the only way to truly push power generation towards low CO2 emissions is to tax carbon. And the only way to do that is to get people to understand that, much like cigarettes have costs to our health care system far beyond what smokers pay at the register, carbon emissions cost everyone a lot more than the spot price for natural gas.

Today in Cleantech

Not only was Earth Hour a bit of a downer from a social media perspective, but it turns out that my one and only tweet that evening generated 0.02 grams of C02. Not a huge amount, mind you, but it adds up when you consider that 50 million tweets are sent on an average day. At least Raffi Krikorian, the developer for Twitter’s Platform Team who gave us this insight, can take comfort in the fact that each Google search query generates 0.2 grams of CO2. Also consider that Google handles an estimated 3 billion searches per day. I’ll let you do the math.

Touchscreen Devices and Gloves Don’t Mix — or Do They?

Winter has definitely arrived here in the UK, with temperatures dropping over the past week or so, prompting me to break out my winter coat and gloves. I actually quite enjoy the changing seasons, but gloves are awkward because they don’t work with devices with capacitive touchscreens (like my iPhone, and also the trackpad on my MacBook), and constantly removing and replacing gloves when fiddling with my phone quickly becomes annoying. Fortunately, I’ve found there are quite are a few workarounds that let you keep warm mitts and stay connected on the go. Read More about Touchscreen Devices and Gloves Don’t Mix — or Do They?

Today in Cleantech

Katie Fehrenbacher’s latest article confirmed something that I long suspected. Digital distribution of music slashes CO2 emissions and saves energy. One fellow that didn’t get the memo is HP’s Chief Strategy and Technology Officer, Shane Robison. Several of his predictions on sustainable IT are promising except one: on-demand printing. Admittedly, the print industry can avoid tons of waste with on-demand books but consider the source (hint: printers and ink). Publishers and booksellers would be better served heeding Paul Sweeting’s advice during the e-book transition. After all, there are scores future Kindle owners out there on the cusp of purchasing books wirelessly poolside or at an airport lounge. I count myself among them.

App Review: Stuck Genie — There’s a Genie in Your iPhone

title=Stuck Genie

A genie, a load of balls, and an ancient labyrinth come together to create a frustrating, but fun, puzzler.

One of the big boys in the movie biz, Warner Bros., has been solidly churning out iPhone apps for the past few months. Most of these apps have been global franchises, though, including Terminator Salvation, Watchmen and — the double whammy of brand-names — LEGO Batman.

Without a movie, cartoon series, or line of toys, Stuck Genie is an entirely original game. Containing 73 puzzles, the game challenges you to complete each one and earn the highest score. Read More about App Review: Stuck Genie — There’s a Genie in Your iPhone

Mapping Out Traffic Pollution

Traffic tie-ups aren’t just a headache for drivers, they can also be a significant source of pollution. But new, low-cost, wireless sensors could offer real-time information on traffic hotspots, potentially helping to clear up the congestion, and clear the air. UK researchers are showing off a network of pollution sensors today at a government-backed technology conference in London.


Called the MESSAGE project — for Mobile Environmental Sensing System Across Grid Environments — the research is led by the Imperial College London. The government’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which organized the conference and is partially backing the sensor research, said the network is the first of its kind in the world.

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The Eye in the Sky on Carbon Dioxide

Update: The eye in the sky didn’t quite make it to its lofty perch — after it’s launch this morning the satellite failed to reach orbit.

It’s a bird … it’s a plane … it’s a carbon-spotting satellite from NASA! The U.S. space agency’s first satellite to study atmospheric carbon dioxide is set to launch tomorrow morning, a potential boon for environmental watchdogs, as well as cleantech firms looking to pitch their pollution-cutting wares or sell carbon credits to the biggest emitters of CO2 on the planet.


But if you just can’t wait till the satellite starts beaming its info from space, you can already check out the current data on CO2 across the U.S. through a newly-released map for Google Earth. Researchers at Purdue University put up the map last week, which can show pollution from factories, power plants, roadways, and residential and commercial buildings by state, county or population. The Purdue team is aiming to eventually have emissions data at the street level, and they plan to expand the project, called Project Vulcan, to other countries, starting with Canada and Mexico.
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Wholesale Internet Bandwidth Prices Keep Falling

Sure it’s not like back in the early 2000s, when those crooks from Enron were driving the prices of bandwidth down into the ground, but even today prices on Internet bandwidth continue to fall. If you are a consumer, however, there’s a good chance you’re wondering what I’m talking about — after all, broadband service providers like Comcast and Time Warner are talking about putting the meter on the bandwidth they serve up to residential subscribers.

What I’m talking about is wholesale Internet bandwidth that is sold to Internet services providers (ISPs) and content companies like Yahoo and Google. This is called IP Transit and it is sold at a rate of “per megabit per second per month” and often requires a monthly bandwidth commitment. Cogent Communications, Level 3 Communications, Tata Communications, Global Crossing and AT&T are some of the more well-known IP Transit providers.

Today research firm Telegeography came out with a report that shows the price of wholesale Internet access (IP transit), while varied around the globe, are still in decline. Here are some facts. Read More about Wholesale Internet Bandwidth Prices Keep Falling