Tech Giants Power up Alternative Energy Sources

Tech Giants Power up Alternative Energy Sources

By Don Willmott


Where, exactly, is the Internet? Many of us think of it as an invisible cloud floating somewhere in the stratosphere, but the truth is that most of it lives in huge, mysterious, heavily guarded data centers located in the hinterlands of Oregon, Iowa, Quebec, and numerous other locations. Inside these air-conditioned bunkers are the millions of servers that manage your e-mail, your Facebook posts, your tweets, your Flickr photos, and your iTunes activity. And they are hungry for energy. Very hungry. According to a 2013 report from the Digital Power Group, watching an hour of streaming video per week for a year is equivalent to running two new refrigerators for a year. Think about that the next time you grab a snack while binge watching “House of Cards” or “Orange is the New Black.”

Among titans, Apple is getting the most praise for trying—and succeeding—to power its huge data centers with alternative energy sources. Even the characteristically exacting Greenpeace has been praising Apple, most recently after the company announced in July that it would build a third solar farm near its Maiden, North Carolina data center, a $55 million, 100-acre installation that will generate 17.5 megawatts of power to go accompany the two 20-megawatt, 55,000-panel facilities it already has on site. Today, Apple generates 167 million kilowatt‑hours of renewable energy there per year, enough to power nearly 14,000 homes. It does remain connected to the grid, however, just in case of bad weather or long winters.

Apple generates 167 million kilowatt‑hours of energy per year at its solar farms in North Carolina. (Courtesy of Apple)

Apple’s stated goal is to run all its data centers on 100 percent renewable energy, and it’s actually getting the job done, with a mix of solar, hydro, wind and biogas technologies online at its data centers in Prineville, Oregon; Newark, California; and Reno, Nevada. (As for some of its competitors, Google uses renewable energy to power 30 percent of its data centers, and Facebook is planning a fully wind powered data center in Iowa later this year.)

Apple is also going to extremes at its massive new global headquarters, currently under construction in Silicon Valley. The circular Apple Campus 2, more commonly referred to as “The Spaceship,” will include 2.8 million square feet of office space powered almost entirely by 750,000 square feet of solar panels on its massive roof, making it one of the biggest single solar arrays in the world, with the ability to generate four megawatts of power.

Apple’s new headquarters will be powered almost entirely by solar panels on its roof. (Courtesy of Apple)

Of course, Apple’s biggest problem is its massive (and pretty dirty) global hardware manufacturing supply chain, which the company says is responsible for almost 75 percent of its total 2013 carbon footprint of 33.8 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s one problem Facebook, Twitter, and Google don’t have. The good news is that Apple believes climate change is very real—CEO Tim Cook has even suggested that climate change deniers divest themselves of Apple stock—and is extremely vocal about addressing it through its own business practices and perhaps inspiring—or shaming—its competitors into following suit. 

Another tech heavyweight committed to building a post-carbon Internet is Microsoft, which said it will buy the entire 175-megawatt energy output of Illinois’ Pilot Hill Wind Project to power one of its data centers.

The 20-year power purchase agreement, which actually made construction of the project possible, will yield the energy equivalent of 70,000 households’ worth of power—giving you some idea of just how much energy it takes to run the typical data center.

In fact, this is Microsoft’s second big wind power buy. In 2013, the company committed to buying the 110-megawatt output of the Keechi Wind Project, located north of Fort Worth, Texas. Standing 300 feet high, Keechi’s 55 turbines will send energy to the same grid that powers Microsoft’s big San Antonio data center.

Microsoft is also looking into biogas. It’s affiliating with a Cheyenne, Wyoming water treatment plant to power fuel cells using the biogas emitted from the plant to power a small data center that can run completely off the grid.

All this work kicked off in mid-2012, when Microsoft announced the goal of carbon neutrality in all its operations—including data centers, software development labs, air travel, and office buildings. To get there, the company established an internal price on carbon and made every business division financially accountable to increase awareness. The company also buys renewable energy and carbon offsets for any emissions it can't eliminate through its own measures.

The EPA says that Microsoft is now the third-largest green power user in the country, coming in behind chipmaker Intel, and Kohl’s Department Stores. Like Apple, Microsoft also has a vendor code of conduct to which its suppliers must adhere, and it includes environmental goals that it hopes can eliminate some of the 60 percent of its overall greenhouse gas emissions that originate in its global supply chains.

Interestingly, despite their huge energy consumption, data centers are inherently efficient, letting companies divest themselves of some of their own servers and turn instead shared cloud-based services, a strategy that earn them energy savings of anywhere from 30 to 90 percent.


Don Willmott is a New York-based journalist who writes about technology, travel, and the environment for a wide variety of publications and websites.

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