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?