Apple Gets More of Its Power From Coal Than Any Other Big Tech Company

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While Google's worked hard to rely less on coal, Apple has not taken climate considerations into its datacenter decisions.

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The world's tech leaders all need large amounts of electricity to drive their data centers, but they don't all get their power the same way.

Some, most notably Google*, have made an effort to reduce the amount of coal that powers their data centers. Others, like Apple, HP, and IBM, have not. Those three companies get half or more of their power from the carbon heaviest fuel of them all, according to a new report from Greenpeace. Absent any kind of real energy policymaking in this country, people who care about climate and energy can only use their consumer dollars to influence the way that companies behave. So, this disparity in company strategy should be highlighted. There's just no reason that Apple can't locate its datacenters in places with a cleaner electrical generation mix. None. They're too profitable to pretend otherwise.

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Without considering externalities, power is nominally cheapest in the southeastern United States, where coal reigns and the pacific Northwest, where hydropower helps keep prices down. So many companies have chosen to situate their datacenters in those two areas, though they have very different climate impacts. 

Of course, data centers are not the root cause of the world's energy and climate dilemma. Data centers are estimated to use about two percent of American electricity. Moving people, goods, water, and air takes a lot more energy than keeping the world's servers on. But the point is that these tech companies have deployed different strategies for getting their electricity and those strategies have climate consequences.

This map from our partners at the Climate Desk shows 52 of the largest data centers. Hover over a point on the map to see who owns the plant and how reliant Greenpeace estimates it is on coal. 



* Dell has many fewer data centers than the other companies on the list, so it's harder to make a direct comparison between that company and Apple.


UPDATE 4:12 pm: A spokeswoman for Apple pushed back in a statement to Climate Desk after publication that the Maiden facility will be the "greenest data center ever built," and released figures that dispute Greenpeace's report. Greenpeace's report estimates the facility will draw 100 megawatts of power. Apple says the facility will use 20 megawatts at full capacity, and is on track to supply more than 60% of that power on-site from renewable sources including a solar farm and fuel cell installation, "which will each be the largest of their kind in the country."


UPDATE 4/20/2012: We have posted a follow-up concerning the accuracy of the Greenpeace report.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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