Getting the Numbers Right

Apple found itself on Greenpeace’s dirty list last year, receiving harsh criticism from the environmental group for its North Carolina data center. Based on Greenpeace’s estimates of the energy consumed at the facility, Apple was responsible for a lot of coal being burned. That’s not good.

While I’m really glad there are organizations like Greenpeace holding corporations to a higher standard than does our government, and I understand that Apple is a prime target for all sorts of activists because using their name generates a lot of press (Foxconn also makes Samsung toys), I really wish the activists would be a little more careful. It’s their own credibility at stake as well as Apple’s.

NOTE: I am completely aware that I come across as a shill for Apple in the following paragraphs. I went back over the text with the conscious resolve to temper the narrative, to be more balanced. The thing is, there is no balance. Greenpeace was stupid, and nobody won.

Take the data center in question. Both Greenpeace and Apple agree that Apple has built the largest solar farm in the US and the largest fuel cell generation plant in the US to provide power to the facility. Apple says those provide 60% of the power needed to run the place, and they are expanding the solar farm with the goal of reaching 100%*.

Greenpeace says the power those the solar and fuel cell plants generate is just a drop in the bucket, and the rest of the power must come from coal. Yikes. Apple says the facility will use 20MW when fully up and running, and they’ve got that covered. Greenpeace says it will use five times that much, and Apple certainly does not have it covered. That’s a big discrepancy. How do the two organizations end up so far apart?

Outsiders have used various methods to guess how much computing power is in the sprawling facility. The footprint of the building is very large; if it were filled with servers from wall to wall, power consumption would likely be much higher than what Apple claims. The thing is, the building is not filled to bursting with raw computing power, if public documents are to be believed. In fact, only about a third of the square footage is devoted to humming hardware; the rest of the building is devoted to ‘other stuff’.

So where did Greenpeace get their power estimate? According to an article I can’t find the link to anymore, the reasoning goes something like this: “Apple says they are spending a billion dollars on the facility. A typical billion-dollar data center would burn 100 MW of power, based on the performance of similar data centers. Even if Apple gold-plates the whole building, they’re not going to spend five times more for a 20MW facility than their competitors.”

OK, I can follow that logic, but you have to be careful that you don’t follow it off a cliff.

Here’s the thing: that billion dollars includes the cost of the largest solar farm and the largest fuel-cell generation facility in the United States. Greenpeace is including the cost of providing clean(er) energy to inflate their estimates of how much dirty energy the facility is consuming. If Apple simply used coal-fired electricity in their plant, they’d look better in the face of Greenpeace math.

Put another way, yes, Apple will pay five times as much for a data center as others will, if it means they don’t have to pay so much for power in the future. Apple is building a data center that is much less vulnerable to future energy cost spikes, which is a smart thing to do when you have the cash on hand now to control costs down the road.

Apple knows that electricity is its lifeblood, and there is a major initiative to make the company energy-independent. That’s just smart. They are also focussing on renewable sources for that power, which increases the up-front costs significantly, and won’t pay off for decades. From hearing the speeches, I honestly believe that doing what’s right is important among the execs at Apple. Note to investors: Apple is also becoming very good in the clean energy business. Ahead of the curve as an energy provider. I wonder, idly, if some of those dollars spent in North Carolina are to establish a beachhead in the coming energy war.

As for Greenpeace, they’ve said they’re happy about Apple’s commitment to clean(er) power, and they hope the tech giant keeps improving. We can all agree on that.

* Time flies. Since I wrote my draft, I’ve seen a letter from a Big Shot at Apple saying the facility is now 100% renewable – though that’s a slippery term, and corporate big shots aren’t generally noted for honesty. They don’t lie so much as spin. But still.

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