Can Data Be Green Enough?

Apple has broken ground on a new data center in Prineville, Oregon, which it has said will be "green," meaning what exactly?

This article is from the archive of our partner .
Fresh news and ideas about our planet's future
See full coverage

Apple has broken ground on a new data center in Prineville, Oregon, which will be "green," meaning what exactly? The company hasn't said yet, for this particular facility. All we know is that the plans show two 500,000 square feet centers with what are called "data halls." Other than that and the word "green," we got nada. But for some clues, Apple has disclosed its environmentally friendly plans for another one of its centers in Maiden, N.C. So going off of that, we have some idea for what Apple means when it says it will do something nice for the planet. The list is as follows:

  • From the Apple site: "we’re building what will be the nation’s largest private solar arrays and the largest non-utility fuel cell installation operating anywhere in the country." It will do that by doubling the size of its current solar farm, there. 
  •  The plant is also built with green design in mind. The building is LEED certified, with a chilled water storage system that improves efficiency. It also has special power-friendly lighting and white cool-roof design to provide maximum solar reflectivity, among other things described on the Apple site

Of course Prineville has different resources than Maiden, North Carolina. But Facebook has what Fast Company's Jordan Kushan's called "a hyper-green data center" in the same Oregon town. That building is built in such a way that it doesn't have to use energy to constantly cool it down, which is one of the main uses of electricity at data centers because the servers emit a lot of heat. Kushan's explains:

In a super-simplified version of its inner-workings, outside air is drawn in from the west, down through the floor into the 164,000-square-foot computer room where fans pull it up and through a set of holes above, so the hot air is isolated from the incoming cold air. Along that path, misters blow very fine moisture into the air stream that has a humidifying and cooling effect.

Perhaps Apple's "data halls" will be something like this?

Even with all these green updates, however, don't expect environmentalists to applaud the efforts . As we learned from Google last week, these data centers expend a ton of energy—something 1.5 percent of all the earth's electricity. Greenpeace has come down on all these tech companies for energy-intensive data centers in its annual How Clean Is Your Cloud? report. Initially Apple got a D. Even when the iPhone maker submitted its plans for the Maiden facility, the environmental organization only upgraded its grade to a C, with the following scathing remark about its DIY approach:

Utlimately if Apple wants to get serious about its commitment to a coal-free iCloud, the most important thing it can do is use its buying leverage with Duke Energy and other utilities to push for cleaner electricity options. ... Just as Apple has been widely asked to actively engage with other aspects of its supply chain to push for fairer labor standards, Apple must do the same with its electricity supply chain.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.