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Did Apple Cave to Radical Environmentalist Group?


"...little more than PR announcements and little real change."

Just this week, two Greenpeace protesters were arrested outside of Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., for parking a pod and projecting messages about the company's unclean energy use onto the building. This isn't the first time the environmental group has called out Apple on its energy practices. At the time, Apple noted it was already implementing "green" practices at its data center that was drawing criticism from Greenpeace for using coal power.

(Related: Greenpeace activists arrested for a prank using this giant pod outside of Apple HQ)

Now, just a couple days after Greenpeace's latest protest, Apple announced it would be using 100 percent renewable energy at its Maiden, North Carolina, data center by the end of 2012. Still, some experts wonder just how feasible it is for a data center to go 100 percent green.

Using 20 megawatts of power at full capacity, Apple states that 60 percent of this energy will come from onsite solar arrays it is installing and a non-utility fuel cell.

Here's more about the green energy the data center will have onsite:

We’re currently building two solar array installations in and around Maiden. These sites use high-efficiency solar cells and an advanced solar tracking system. A 100-acre, 20-megawatt installation on the same site as our data center will produce 42 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy annually. A 100-acre site located a few miles away will produce another 42 million kWh. Together that’s 84 million kWh of clean, renewable energy supplied annually. When our bio-gas-powered 5-megawatt fuel cell installation comes online later this year, it will provide more than 40 million kWh of renewable energy annually. This means Apple will be producing enough onsite renewable energy — 124 million kWh — to power the equivalent of 10,874 homes.

In addition to the energy it will be producing, Wired reports the company plans to get other supplementary energy it needs from local power plants that only derive their energy from renewable sources. These energy providers are not named.

Also, perhaps in an effort to stave off further protests or questions from activists, Apple's webpage also says that it is making a point of being transparent with its energy process. Allowing the public to "follow our progress," the company is registering its renewable energy generated onsite with the North Carolina Renewable Energy Tracking System (NC-RETS).

Although Apple has been planning these green initiatives for some time, the timing of the recent announcement makes it appear that the company is caving to pressure from environmental groups. Wired reports Greenpeace, while pleased with the announcement, isn't stopping the campaign it's begun called "Clean the Cloud:"

Apple’s announcement today is a great sign that Apple is taking seriously the hundreds of thousands of its customers who have asked for an iCloud powered by clean energy, not dirty coal,” a Greenpeace spokesman said in an e-mail message.

Greenpeace wants Apple — and Microsoft and Amazon too, for that matter — to promise to make renewable energy a priority even as it builds new data centers. “Only then will customers have confidence that the iCloud will continue to get cleaner as it grows,” Greenpeace said.

ZDNet questions whether the expectation for data centers to run on 100 percent renewable energy is really even possible. Given that only 15 percent of the energy produced in the United States comes from renewable sources, ZDNet points out it may be impractical for data centers to rely completely on this source given that there may not be sufficient supply. Going further, it states:

If you really want to campaign for renewable energy in datacenters, don’t just complain about the use of fossil fuels; provide alternatives that can be implemented now, not ones that require decades of rebuilding of the entire power generation infrastructure of the world. Practical, technology driven solutions that have a business advantage will result in organic deployment of those solutions.  Just about anything else will result in little more than PR announcements and little real change.

ZDNet does acknowledge the benefit to Apple going green in this way will at least pay off "in the field of public opinion."

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