You have to see Apple’s Reno, Nevada, data center from the inside to truly understand how huge it is. It’s made up of five long white buildings sitting side by side on a dry scrubby landscape just off I-80, and the corridor that connects them through the middle is a quarter-mile long. On either side are big, dark rooms–more than 50 of them–filled with more than 200,000 identical servers, tiny lights winking in the dark from their front panels. This is where Siri lives. And iCloud. And Apple Music. And Apple Pay.
Powering all these machines, and keeping them cool, takes a lot of power–constant, uninterrupted, redundant power. At the Reno data center, that means 100% green power from three different Apple solar farms.
The nearest one, and the first one built, is the Fort Churchill solar farm an hour southeast in desolate country near the town of Yerington, Nevada, where there’s nothing but flat, dry land bordered by low, jagged hills and blue desert sky. From the main road you can walk up to the fence and look down the seemingly endless lines of solar modules on the other side, with long concave mirrors catching and focusing the sun’s energy into the line of small black photo cells sitting just behind them.
Churchill is representative of the growing number of renewable energy sources that have popped up around Apple’s data centers in recent years. Since these massive computing machines use more power than any other kind of Apple facility, the company worked hard to get them powered by 100% renewable energy, reaching that goal in 2014.
Now Apple says it’s finished getting the rest of its facilities running on 100% green power–from its new Apple Park headquarters, which has one of the largest solar roofs on the planet, to its distribution centers and retail stores around the world. Though the 100% figure covers only Apple’s own operations–not those of of the suppliers and contract manufacturers which do much of the work of bringing its ideas to life–it’s also convinced 23 companies in its supply chain to sign a pledge to get to 100% renewable energy for the portion of their business relating to Apple products.
The achievement is the culmination of a furious effort over the past six years that involved financing, building, or locating new renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind farms, near the company’s facilities. Apple says it now has 25 operational renewable energy projects–with 15 more now in construction–in 11 countries. Just eight years ago, only 16% of its facilities were powered by renewable energy. By 2015 that number had increased to 93%, then to 96% in 2016.
Along the way, in 2013, Apple signaled its seriousness about green initiatives by hiring former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson as VP of environment, policy, and social initiatives. CEO Tim Cook wanted Jackson to focus Apple’s environmental initiatives, and perhaps act as a respected emissary to Washington, D.C. She’s done both.
According to Jackson, it would have been easy enough for Apple to trumpet its landmark achievement in renewable energy earlier. “If you look at our trajectory, for the last couple of years we’ve been close to 100%,” she says. “It’s just four percent more, but it’s four percent done the right way. So this announcement feels like a classic Apple product release. Like our products, we sweat the details, we have pretty strict standards, and we prefer to wait and meet our standards than to rush and make a claim.”
I talked to Jackson in one of Apple Park’s many well-designed but identical-looking conference rooms, a large pane of glass behind her revealing the curved outer shell of the “spaceship.” A chemical engineer who grew up in New Orleans, she has a smooth vocal quality and an unhurried way of talking. Above all she is plainspoken. She avoids energy-wonk jargon and is frank about what she’s seen and done at Apple over the last five years.
The overarching goal of Apple going 100% green is, of course, is to reduce harmful emissions from dirty fuels. The company says it’s reduced its greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e) by 58% since 2011, preventing 2.2 million metric tons of CO2e from entering the atmosphere. But Apple’s own progress as measured by the numbers isn’t the only point. In places where it has facilities, the company has often been a catalyst, working with local utilities and regulators to build new solar or wind farms that pump new green power onto the public grid. Jackson told me Apple especially likes to do this in markets where the majority of the existing energy comes from ecologically unfriendly sources like coal or oil. “It’s an approach that’s really important because you’re growing the clean energy market around you,” she says.
Former Vice President Al Gore, the author of An Inconvenient Truth and a member of Apple’s board since 2003, believes the company is sending a message that ecological responsibility can be good business. “It is proving the business case that well-managed companies can reduce the greenhouse gases that are causing the climate crisis while simultaneously reducing their energy costs,” he said in a statement to Fast Company. “Its efforts are transforming the way the tech sector uses power, both domestically and around the world.”
It Started With Data Centers
The closer Apple got to its 100% goal, the more the effort centered on some of its smallest, most remote offices and retail stores around the world to 100%. Over the past year, the company has been busy locating and signing power purchase agreements (PPAs) with renewable energy projects in places like Brazil, India, Israel, Mexico, and Turkey. The hardest part was finding renewable energy projects small enough to serve the limited power needs of operations such as tiny sales offices.
Earlier on, however, the company was able to get most of the way to 100% in big chunks. It did so by locating or creating renewable energy sources for the power-hungry data centers it was building as services such as Siri, iCloud, and Apple Music became increasingly key to its future. Apple now has data centers in Maiden, North Carolina; Reno, Nevada; Mesa, Arizona; Newark, California, and Prineville, Oregon. The company has announced plans for another data center in Waukee, Iowa, as well as one in Ireland, two in Denmark, and two in China.
These sprawling facilities require a lot of power to keep their thousands of servers humming along in their quiet corridors, and more power to keep them all cool. Before it began building any data centers, Apple made the decision that it would run them on renewable energy.
With its $285 billion in cash reserves, Apple certainly has enough money to simply buy up existing green power to get to the 100% goal. But one of the strict standards which Jackson says Apple follows is something called “additionality,” or a preference for sponsoring the creation of new renewable power sources. “We want to put new, clean power on the grid so that we’re not sucking up all the clean energy that’s there,” she says.
Early on, when the company began construction in the early 2010s, renewable energy sources–like solar, wind, and hydro power–were seen by the energy industry as novel and inefficient. Therefore, the supply in most places was limited and expensive. It soon became apparent that if Apple was serious about running its data centers on green energy, it would have to take an active hand in priming the market.
That’s what happened in North Carolina, where Apple built its first data center in 2009. After looking to local energy providers for renewable sources and finding none, it decided to build its own solar farm. In 2012, it hired the Bay Area-based solar contractor SunPower, which built the 20-megawatt farm right across the street from the data center. (To give you a sense of scale, 20 megawatts would be enough to power about 3,300 homes.) Apple ended up building three solar projects in North Carolina–two 20-megawatt solar farms and an 18-megawatt one–as well as a bio-gas fuel-cell farm capable of generating 10 megawatts of green power.
In 2012, in California and Oregon, Apple started using a state-mandated program called Direct Access, which made it possible for big power consumers to buy energy directly from a third-party renewable energy provider instead of the local utility. This cleared the way for Apple to finance its own solar and wind projects, with the intention of being the primary user of the power generated by them.
Apple points to this approach as a key reason for the creation of several energy projects that would power its data center in Prineville, Oregon. In 2017, the company agreed to purchase 200 megawatts of power from a new wind farm called the Montague Wind Power Project, which is set to come online in 2019. It also agreed to buy 56 megawatts of power from the nearby Solar Star Oregon II solar farm located a few miles from the data center. In addition, it has two micro-hydroelectric projects generating power from a couple of irrigation canals near Prineville, but those supply less than one percent of the data center’s power.
The Direct Access program also made it possible for Apple to buy power for its Newark data center from First Solar’s 130-megawatt California Flats solar project in Monterey County, California.
When Apple was preparing to build its data center near Reno, it again searched for renewable energy options and found nothing close to what it would need. The local utility, NV Energy, at the time had very little experience with solar energy. So Apple again decided to go it alone, contracting with SunPower to build a new solar farm. The result is the Fort Churchill Solar PV project, which sits on a 137-acre stretch of desert land and generates 18 megawatts of power.
Part of the resistance to building new clean energy projects in Nevada came from a concern that the cost of the development would increase energy prices for all power customers. In response, Apple worked with NV Energy and the state’s utilities commission to create a new regulatory structure called the Nevada Green Rider Program, which let big green power buyers like Apple pay extra costs associated with developing renewable power. This cleared the way for Apple to build new renewable energy projects, sell the electricity generated to NV Energy, then buy it back at retail.
The Green Rider program let Apple purchase power from two other Nevada solar farms–the 50-megawatt Boulder II solar array, and the 200-megawatt Techren Solar project, which is expected to come online by the end of 2018.
Apple also owns the 50 megawatt Bonnybrooke solar facility in Pinal County, Arizona, which provides power to its new command center in Mesa. The company worked with the local utility, the Salt River Project, which now manages the project and the power from it.
While Apple is playing a leading role in building out green-energy infrastructure, in the end it’s a maker of computing hardware, software, and services, not an energy company. That’s why it likes to partner with a local utility or independent green power provider which understands the power market and knows how to do things like balancing power loads against supply. Now that renewable energies are more mainstream and the cost of the energy is far lower, local utilities, developers, and green-energy companies are willing to take on greater roles and risk in building new energy projects; Apple’s main role is often to commit to buying the power for periods up to 20 years. Not only does that commitment help the developers of the green energy projects secure financing, but it also gives Apple low and predictable energy rates for years into the future.
And it’s only going to need more of that energy. Apple’s services business is growing quickly, and so will the number and size of its data centers. For example, the company projected in a filing with the Nevada Public Utility Commission that it expects its Reno data center’s power consumption to increase 45% from 2017 to 2019. It’s reasonable to think that its other data centers will see similar growth.
Greenwashing Not Allowed
When Apple says that 100% of its facilities are now powered by renewable energies, that doesn’t mean that it built a new solar or wind farm to directly feed power to every one of its data centers, stores, and offices. It’s more complicated than that, because of the nature of today’s energy markets. Some large corporations have taken advantage of that complexity to make claims of environmental responsibility which may outstrip reality. Apple deserves credit for resisting that temptation.
These days, not many green energy producers get power directly from a solar panel on their roof. The vast majority of renewable energy producers (and consumers) are plugged into the public power grid. Once green power is delivered onto the grid, those electrons go where they want to go, and they mix with other electrons generated from dirty resources like coal and oil. A power consumer has no way of saying “I want only the green electrons, not the brown ones.”
So a currency called Renewable Energy Certificates (or RECs) was devised to help differentiate clean power from dirty power on the grid. One REC is equal to a single megawatt of power produced from a renewable energy source. It gives green power producers such as Apple a way to prove that it produced a certain amount of green energy from its renewable energy projects in a certain market. With that number established, it’s possible for a company to show that its facilities in that same market consumed less power than its green projects produced.
But the plot thickens. It turns out RECs (like carbon credits) can be sold independent of the energy itself. So it’s also possible for a large power consumer to buy only the RECs–and not the power–from a renewable energy project and use them to offset its use of dirty energy at one of its own facilities. That facility might be in a different part of the world from the renewable energy project that generated the power represented by the REC. There’s a name for this: Greenwashing.
Apple, on the other hand, has been very consistent about keeping its RECs closely associated with actual energy. This might mean energy created by an Apple green-energy project. In other cases it means green energy the company buys via long-term power purchase agreement with renewable energy projects located near an Apple facility.
“You could go out and buy carbon credits and offsets–nope,” says Jackson firmly. “You could go out and wait for other people to do projects and say ‘Can I have some of that please? How much will you charge me for some of your clean energy?’ No.”
Jackson explains that Apple prefers to buy power from renewable energy projects where the company played some role–by either investing capital up front or committing to buying the power produced there for a long time, sometimes decades.
“I am not aware of any other company that uses that same stringency for making sure the clean power that they’re investing in or purchasing is on the regional grid where it’s being used,” she boasts. But she acknowledges that there are still places in the world where that’s not possible, though that may have more to do with the reality of power markets than choices Apple has made. In some cases, the company has had to sign long-term contracts to acquire the RECs from a new project it helped create elsewhere in the same region. That was the case recently for a two-person office in Chile. There was no suitable green energy source nearby, so Apple is now offsetting the brown power used by that office with RECs from one of its green-power projects in Brazil.
Apple isn’t the only tech company moving quickly on green initiatives. And because Google, Facebook, and Amazon’s businesses are more dependent on internet services than Apple’s, they buy far more energy than Apple does. Google was one of the first corporate movers on renewables; it says that it’s the world’s largest purchaser of renewable energy and purchased enough RECs in 2017 to cover all its operations. Facebook says it exceeded its goal of powering its data centers with 25% renewable energy and now is working toward 50% by the end of 2018. Amazon Web Services is working toward 100% green energy for its data centers, announcing it had passed the 40% mark in 2016.
(Clarification: Google spokeswoman Amy Atlas points out that her company buys green power that is bundled with RECs. It then retires the RECs so they can’t be used again. She adds that Google buys power on the same electrical grid with its data centers.)
While some state and local governments, corporations, and even solar companies have abused RECs to game the system, it’s the big tech companies that have been best-behaved, says Kevin Jones, director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School.
“Companies like Apple and Google are really setting the gold standard for the way governments and corporate entities should execute on their renewable goals,” he argues. “They are moving forward on this by signing initial power purchase agreements and correctly keeping the bundled RECs.” The less conscientious alternative is to sell off the RECs and use the proceeds to offset the cost of the green power.
What About The Supply Chain?
As vast as Apple’s own operations are, its network of component suppliers and contract manufacturers is larger still. Given that Apple has no large-scale manufacturing operations of its own, these companies do much of the heavy lifting of making products such as the iPhone possible. Convincing them to go green is an opportunity—and a challenge—of its own.
In 2015, Apple started a program to move suppliers toward green energy. Last year, 14 such companies pledged to work toward running the parts of their operations that serve Apple on 100% renewable energy. Today, Apple announced that another nine of its suppliers have promised to reach this goal. And this batch includes some big names. Pegatron assembles the iPhone and other Apple products factories in Shanghai and Kunshan, China. Quanta Computer manufactures the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Apple Watch in Taiwan. California-based Finisar makes the lasers that power the iPhone X’s Face ID facial recognition. Even one of the suppliers of materials for Apple Watch bands–Ecco Leather–took the pledge.
Apple says that by using clean energy from renewable energy projects its suppliers avoided releasing more than 1.5 million metric tons of CO2e into the air in 2017. That’s the equivalent of taking more than 300,000 cars off the road, the company states.
Still, there’s a very big name missing from the list of suppliers that have taken the 100% pledge–Foxconn, which uses more energy than any other Apple supplier–and very likely more than Apple itself–and its massive manufacturing plants in China. Not that it’s sandbagging. As part of a 2015 Apple initiative, Foxconn agreed to build solar projects that produce 400 megawatts of power, starting in the Henan Province by 2018. It also said it would generate as much clean energy as its Zhengzhou factory consumes in “final production” of the iPhone.
According to Jackson, suppliers have been surprisingly receptive to pledging to use 100% green energy. “Apple has a long history of taking suppliers and getting to world class–together–and this is just part of being world class,” she says.
The truth is Apple has plenty of leverage to push its suppliers toward renewables. Particularly since Tim Cook joined the company to oversee operations in 1998, the company has been known for being a hard-nosed negotiator and a demanding customer. Now it’s throwing its weight around in the interest of protecting the environment.
I asked Jackson to describe how Apple goes about persuading a supplier to switch to renewable energy, and she was blunt. The conversation, she says, might go something like “Hey this is something that’s becoming increasingly important to us, so get a leg up on the person that’s going to try to get this business away from you. Clean up your power act now.”
At the moment, this conversation involves a healthy dose of education. “What we say is that we’ll be there with you,” Jackson recounts. “We’ll help you scout deals, we’ll help you evaluate whether they’re real, we’ll help you know what to negotiate for, because most of these folks, they’re trying to make a part, and so what we can do for them is be sort of their in-house consulting firm.” But she adds that there will likely come a time where Apple will require suppliers to run their businesses on clean energy as a condition of a business relationship.
Even now, a Greenpeace report from last year noted, Apple is unique among big tech companies for tracking information about its suppliers’ green-energy progress. “Apple has thus far been fairly aggressive in pursuing its 2020 goal to deploy 4GW of renewable energy in its supply chain,” Greenpeace says in the report, “and has made significant progress with its suppliers as well.”
Back at Apple Park in Cupertino, the company’s commitment to the environment is tangible in ways it never was at the old 1 Infinite Loop campus a couple of miles away. Apart from the outspoken design language of the structure itself, the place seems to aspire to a zen harmony between the futuristic, high-tech building and the refurbished local environment in which it sits. The dominant colors are silver and black, surrounded by lots of green. Eighty percent of the campus is open space. Walk around inside the building, and you can smell the trees outside–9,000 of them, planted in areas that were once paved over–and the grasses that are native to the area. The building itself is mostly cooled by natural air flow. The solar panels on the roof provide some of the power.
Still, for all the company has accomplished at Apple Park, its data centers, and beyond, getting to 100% renewable energy is less of a happy ending than a single milestone–albeit a big one–in the company’s ongoing environmental quest. It’s said that it wants to stop using mined rare minerals in its products, an industry-wide practice with its own set of deeply serious environmental drawbacks. And though it’s already done much to push local utilities and regulators to prepare for a time when coal and oil are no longer tolerable (or even available) energy sources, that drive will have to continue, at a time when the Trump administration seems intent on actively subverting efforts to confront global warming. (Last year, Tim Cook told Apple employees that he’d tried, unsuccessfully, to convince President Trump to stay in the Paris climate accord.)
Much remains uncertain, but Lisa Jackson is optimistic about energy’s renewable future. “As the markets continue to develop, I don’t see anything that’s going to stop the trajectory toward lower-carbon energy worldwide,” she says. “At some point, you’ll just see countries doing it.” When they do, Apple, along with other tech giants, will deserve some of the credit for getting the flywheel going–a contribution to the betterment of humanity which might well be as meaningful as any new gadget it will sell in its stores.