Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president for environmental initiatives, gives a tour at the company’s solar field in Yerington, NV. Photo: David Calvert/WIRED
On a stunning cloudless day in the Nevada desert, Lisa Jackson stands with her back to an array of advanced solar cells, peering across a low chain link fence at NV Energy’s Fort Churchill Power Generating plant just a few hundred yards away. The 1960s vintage facility has two giant boilers rising from the scrub brush, belching steam and god knows what else. It couldn’t be more different than the futuristic tract where Jackson is standing, with its gleaming rows of curved mirrors and palm-size silicon wafers silently drawing energy from the blinding sun. It’s like a contrast between a phone booth and an iPhone.
“Looks like it runs on natural gas,” she says of the Churchill operation.
“You seem to know your power plants,” I say to her.
“If you’re the head of the Environmental Protection Agency,” says Jackson, “you’d better know your power plants.”
Jackson indeed was administrator of the EPA, the first African-American to hold that post. In that role, the former chemical engineer oversaw the cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, pushed for stronger air quality standards and jousted in hearings with Republican climate-crisis deniers. But the longtime government official, now 52, is no longer Obama’s environmental czar. Since last June she has been Apple’s Vice President of Environmental Initiatives, reporting directly to CEO Tim Cook. It is in that capacity that she is on a mid-April trip to visit the solar array being tested in Yerington, Nevada, and Apple’s newest data center a few miles outside Reno.
It’s an unusual trip in that its point is to give a reporter exposure to the way Apple works, a departure from the company’s usual maniacal secrecy. But when it comes to the environment, Apple consciously carves out an exception to its standard opacity. Part of the motive, of course, is generating a halo effect from good works. But Apple also hopes to inspire other companies and organizations to embark on similar ecologically helpful enterprises. Though it may not have always been the case, Apple has a good Earth Day story to tell.
Here’s that story: Apple is close to its goal of powering all its facilities 100 percent by renewable energy. Its corporate campuses and data centers are now at 94 percent renewable and rising. (In 2010 it was 35 percent.) The next step is to extend the efforts to its retail stores.
In this accounting, Apple does not include the manufacturing, transport, and use of its actual products, which accounts for 98 percent of its carbon footprint. Still, its accomplishment on facilities, particularly data centers, is significant.
Apple’s data center in Sparks, NV. Photo: David Calvert/WIRED
Amends for a Dirty Past
In 2011, Greenpeace released a report called “How Dirty is Your Data?” It graded each internet firm on the filthiness of its cloud operations. Apple earned the dubious distinction of being the among the worst climate offenders, with the most reliance on coal and the lowest score in clean energy. In early 2012, Greenpeace singled out Apple as a target for staged demonstrations. It released balloons in the shape of coal briquettes inside Apple’s Fifth Ave retail store, and inflated a giant iPod outside the firm’s Cupertino headquarters. Not long afterwards—though Apple says the announcement was long in the making—the company proclaimed its intent to power all its operations via renewables like wind, biogas, hydro, and solar. “We had a fairly high degree of skepticism,” says David Pomerantz, a Greenpeace media officer.
But that promise wasn’t just hot air. Last month Greenpeace issued another report card. Apple was at the head of the class, with 100 percent of its total data center power consumption coming from renewables. “They’ve really followed through,” says Greenpeace senior policy analyst Gary Cook. (No relation to Tim, one assumes.) “The facts on the ground have changed.” Cook emphasizes that there is still work for Apple to do, especially in China, where the company should be working harder to reform the globe-busting activities of some of its suppliers. (After multiple reports of Apple suppliers dumping toxic wastes into the water supply, the company has been working with environmental groups to improve its record.) And in addition to its own data centers Apple has servers in “co-location” facilities, some of which snarf up dirty energy: Greenpeace wants Apple to be more aggressive to get these co-lo’s to change their ways. But overall, Greenpeace is pleased. “They saw they had responsibility and they’ve been acting on that responsibility,” says Cook. (Meanwhile Greenpeace’s new punching bags are Amazon and Twitter, whose dirty-power grades were abysmal. Amazon has objected to the rating.)
Apple is not the only company working hard to make its data centers earth-friendly. Google is known for its pioneering work in efficiency. Facebook is a transparency leader, adopting open source data center practices and techniques, and sharing them with the public. Greenpeace gave high grades to both. While neither Facebook or Google are close to Apple’s achievement of data centers totally powered by renewable, both companies are strong believers in the concept. “We would like to hit 100 percent [renewable] as well,” says Facebook spokesperson Mike Kirkland. By the end of 2015, he says, a quarter of the energy for its data centers will be from renewable sources. Google also aspires to 100 percent (it’s currently at 34 percent), but faces much bigger challenges in that effort because its data operations are so massive. The company notes that it more than doubled its renewable power consumption, and that it has invested more than $1 billion in new energy projects.
Of course, as a hardware manufacturer, Apple’s environmental impact goes far beyond its cloud computing needs. The teams Jackson works with at Apple tackle product related issues such as the materials which make up Apple’s devices (they must require minimal energy to extract, be as recyclable as possible, and be free of conflict minerals); the packaging that strives for the X-ray thin-ness of an iPad side view; and the manufacturing process, where Apple attempts to suppress the wasteful instincts of suppliers and partners in countries like China. Spending a day with Jackson entails considerable discussion of progress the company has made in these domains, as well as an acknowledgement of what needs to be done. (She agrees with Greenpeace that there’s plenty of work to do in China.)
The data center power is a symbolic milestone in the rise of sustainable power. Data centers after all, are the greediest electricity suckers in the modern world. They already gobble up around two percent of all the electricity generated in the US, and their needs are expected to triple over the next decade.
Though Jackson can’t take credit for Apple’s renewable initiative, she monitors its progress and, perhaps even more important, spreads the word that renewables aren’t just for tree-huggers, but are serious energy sources that can take on the biggest jobs. “No one can ever claim again you can’t have a data center that runs on 100 percent renewable,” says. “Once those proof points are out there, it makes it easier for policies to follow.”
Solar panels at Apple’s solar field in Yerington, NV. Photo: David Calvert/WIRED
A New Breed of Solar
Apple’s march to 100 percent renewable energy originally began a decade ago, as a green initiative to run Apple’s campus in Austin by renewables, and kept growing more ambitious. But Jackson is now its public face. As she explains the effort, Apple greatly prefers to add or purchase new sources of energy that would otherwise have not been on the electrical grid. This gets tricky when the electric utility uses dirty energy. In North Carolina, for instance, Duke Energy is a huge coal consumer. But pressure fromApple, Facebook and Google nudged Duke into creating a new rate category that allowed the companies to purchase renewable energy for a little more money. That way, when Apple puts solar energy into the grid, it can be sure that the energy it gets back is also renewable.
So how do you power something as energy intensive as a data center completely with renewables? Depends where the data center is. Its Newark, California, data center largely draws its power from wind. Apple’s Prineville, Oregon, data center is also powered by wind, but plans to switch to mainly hydroelectric power, using an innovative plan that draws power from water temporarily diverted from irrigation canals. Apple also is a customer of Bloom boxes, a biogas fuel cell technology.
But Apple’s marquee renewable is solar, and that accounts for our first stop of the day, at a remote desert turnoff about an hour from Reno. (Our transport vehicle, by the way, is a rented SUV running on 100 percent fossil fuel. When Apple employees request hybrid cars, the company pays for the upgrade—but none was available that day. Sorry, Earth.) On a vast plateau of wasteland, with snow-capped mountains visible in the far distance, stands a single trailer, a couple of Porta-Potties, and a fenced-in field with what looks like a mutant garden that grows tanning salons.
It’s not Apple’s first sun-catching venue and won’t be the biggest. Near its Maiden, NC, data center Apple built two 100-acre huge solar fields, for a total of 40 megawatts, using the traditional solar paradigm of black silicon panels. But the Yerington location we visited uses the C7 Tracker, a newer, more efficient approach with smaller cells that bask in intensified sun. “It’s the latest and greatest,” says Rob Wilson, the project manager for SunPower, the contractor that’s building it for Apple. This project is the first utility-scale implementation of such a scheme (the sole previous installation is a one megawatt setup at Arizona State University).
Currently only a single array stands in the desert. It consists of sixteen rows of 80-foot-long units. On each is a four-level stack of curved mirrors, all attached to a single huge arm that tilts the apparatus as it tracks the sun’s path through the sky. The mirrors focus the rays on relatively small solar panels –each one about four inches square—lined up on a strip of metal facing the mirrors. When you look down the metal strip, the cells resemble a large unspooled movie reel. The virtue of this desert location is its extraordinary DNI (Direct Normal Irradiance)—a measure of solar intensity. But the mirrors boost the sunpower by a factor of seven.
This first array, which Apple is testing now, takes up as much space as a sizable suburban backyard. When the field is built out by early 2015, there will be 84 of these arrays, filling 134 acres—producing 18 to 20 megawatts—the lion’s share of the power required by the data center we are going to visit next. (The remaining energy will come from a local geothermal site, which powers the data center now.)
By the way, that’s well over half the juice generated by that fossil fuel monster just up the road.
Lisa Jackson. Photo: David Calvert/WIRED
Beyond Data Centers
Jackson says she wasn’t looking for an industry job when Apple came calling. She hadn’t even used its products that much (though her teenage sons did). But she’d met Tim Cook in 2010 at a Silicon Valley event (Cook was standing in for an ill Steve Jobs—Jackson never did meet the famous co-founder). Not long after she left the EPA, Cook asked her to visit Cupertino. The trip turned out to be a symmetrical job interview, with each side assessing the other. Jackson was impressed with some previous Apple work in the environment, like its decision to drop all PVCs (a toxic chemical) from its power cords and other products. A job offer followed. “I wanted to come here because data are becoming a big issue in the environmental world,” she says. “This is a sector that sees itself as progressive and forward-leading. The next things come from here.”
It is Apple tradition to lunch with your boss on your first day of work. Since Lisa Jackson’s first day fell on the annual WWDC, she attended Cook’s keynote instead. Her Infinite Loop lunch with Cook came the next day. “If you were me, what would you do?” Jackson asked. Cook told her that if he knew exactly how Apple was going to tackle the environment, there would have been no need to hire her. But he noted that she should look to her title—head of environmental initiatives– for guidance. “They are a lot of things any company has to do to stay on the right side of regulation and requirements,” she says. “But what can we bring to the world that only Apple can do? For me, the thing to do is take what this company has always excelled at and see where it can go.”
Though she’s the face of Apple’s environmental efforts, Jackson’s activities have been generally behind the scenes, working to focus Apple’s environmental efforts and working internally to help such initiatives. Her staff is tiny—she jokes that those working under her has gone from 17,000 to 17. But she meets regularly with Apple people, from senior vice presidents to engineers.
When pressed for an example of how she works, Jackson cites the aluminum story. Aluminum is huge for Apple—it’s the main material in laptops, phones and iPads. Thus the impact of mining and processing that metal makes up for a substantial part of Apple’s carbon footprint. That’s why Jackson took notice last year when an engineer told her that he felt something wasn’t right with the way Apple measured that impact. Later, a second engineer reported similar suspicions. In her telling, Jackson could have dismissed this disquiet by noting that Apple was simply conforming to the standard methods of measuring the damage in a given process. But she encouraged efforts at Apple to revisit those standards. Indeed, Apple’s reexamination discovered that using the conventional yardstick, it was dramatically underestimating the emissions its aluminum use was dumping into the atmosphere—by a factor of four. Apple had to adjust its figures to reflect this. As a result, the company did not fulfill its expectation that its carbon footprint would be ten percent smaller in 2013 than previous years—it was nine percent larger. Apple would have to work harder to make its goals.
One of this year’s challenges is making sure that its retail stores rely on renewables just as much as its corporate campuses and data centers. Since Apple typically leases its gadget emporia, it has less control over the power source, so in some cases its efforts are constrained. But this week Apple is announcing that more than 120 of its American stores are powered solely by renewables, including flagship sites like Palo Alto, Chicago’s North Michigan Ave, and New York’s Fifth Avenue. (Only about 135 more to go! Not including another couple hundred overseas.)
There is one place Jackson doesn’t go when it comes to environmental initiatives—the contention that Apple should build iPhones, iPads, and Macbook Airs that last as long as Volvos. She dismisses the idea that there’s a deleterious effect of Apple products becoming obsolete, either by breaking down or by being replaced by the next, more lustworthy generation. Being green, she believes, doesn’t require a consumer sacrifice. “When I was at EPA I always told people that if you’re looking for an administrator who camps out and only eats what she kills, you’ve got the wrong girl,” she says. “I grew up in the city. I don’t sleep outside. I wear makeup. So I’m not one of those people who believe that environment should feel like a sacrifice. I do feel that we should challenge the most innovative company—which I think Apple is–to do everything it wants, but do it better. To give you all the data you could possibly want, but none of the emissions that go along with it.”
In the Desert Air
After a diner lunch next to a casino in a dusty town off the highway, our final stop is the Reno data center, technically in its suburb of Sparks. Apple won’t tell me why it sited this facility exactly where it did (“business reasons,”), but acknowledges that environmental factors are part of the equation—in this case, dry desert air. Undoubtedly, as is the case with when other companies site data centers, a favorable political climate is also in the mix: Nevada’s poorest county welcomed the high-tech business with a reported $88 million in tax breaks. (Critics have noted that’s a lot of tax breaks for the relatively few permanent jobs that a data center requires.)
Apple’s data center in Sparks, NV. One cluster of eight is completed; the second is under construction. Photo: David Calvert/WIRED
Though visible from the Interstate, the facility is not easy to identify and even harder to get to; the Apple communications guy driving our car misses the exit and we have to circle back. Even then he needs to call for help to navigate the frontage roads that bring us to the security gate that protects the fenced-in site, across the highway from a pet food plant.
The data center is designed in what Apple calls a “spine and cluster” arrangement, only part of which has been completed. When it’s done (Apple won’t say when), the spine will be a quarter-mile hallway that binds together eight buildings, each one a pair of two symmetrical structures, for a total of sixteen independent server rooms. In the center, bisecting the planned complex, is an administration building with offices, conference rooms, and a lunchroom. Currently only one server building is completed and online; the second is under construction. “It’s a just-in-time process,” says Mike Petouhoff, Apple’s global energy manager, who is along on our trip.
Apple uses the arid Nevada air to maximize efficiency. While most data centers circulate water to cool the server rooms, essentially transforming the facility into an ambitious plumbing adventure, Reno is air-cooled, just like an old Volkswagen. The air comes straight from the desert, sucked through a wall of filters by a bank of giant turbine intake fans, and sent into the server floor.
In all but the hottest days, that air is cool enough to keep the optimum temperature in the room –known as the cold aisle – at a bit below 80 degrees, a climate that suits the racks of servers fill the room. (In reporting this story, I was allowed to describe everything I saw, with one exception: the manufacturer of the servers. I can say that they are not Mac Mini’s or anything else that you’d buy in an Apple store.) On very hot days, Apple has to cool the air, using a technique called evaporative cooling, which exposes the air to moisture.
Since this wasn’t my first data center, I was able to contrast Apple’s with the competition’s. In many ways, a data center is just a data center, a bunch of computers you only get to see if you endure multiple retina scans to open up the doors. Yet there are subtle hints that this is an Apple facility, even if Jony Ive didn’t draw up the plans. The outside of the administration building has some sweet design elements, like decorative strips of terra cotta paneling in three shades of red, giving it a feeling of a desert lodge. The halls are festooned with huge, neatly hung photographs of tiny details iPhones and other Apple devices. Even the computer rooms seem to have an Apple vibe—they’re not so industrial. The doors to the hot aisle have frosted glass, like lavatory doors at a hip restaurant. The air-cooled facility is relatively quiet; unlike some other data centers, no earplugs required. You get the feeling you could probably eat off the server floor.
Yet those thousands of servers, soon to be powered in part by the Nevada sun, are doing the hard work of Apple’s cloud: uploading movies, handling FaceTime calls, selling iPads, navigating map destinations, and delivering mail. Siri lives here. And she probably doesn’t like dirty energy any more than Jackson does.