Apple, ranked the least green of the big tech companies earlier this year, is moving quietly to repair its reputation by switching its vast east coast data centre from coal to solar power.
Local officials in North Carolina say the company is preparing to build a solar farm adjacent to its $1bn data centre in Maiden.
The facility could help Apple recover from a Greenpeace report earlier this year which said its cloud-computing operations – run from centres such as the one in North Carolina – were heavily reliant on dirty energy such as coal.
Tech companies are notoriously secretive about their data centres and the energy that powers them. A spokeswoman for Apple would confirm only that the company was preparing the ground next to its centre.
But the project became public knowledge in the town when work crews began burning the cleared brush from the 121-acre site in mid-October. Neighbours complained about the smoke billowing into their homes. “They decided after that since it was annoying the neighbours to bring in a chipper and shred and mulch all the wood,” said Toni Norton, an engineer for Catawba County.
With the expansion of cloud computing, companies such as Apple have invested heavily in large data centres for their web-based services – often in areas promising cheap electricity, such as North Carolina.
Google, American Express and Facebook have also built data centres in North Carolina. Apple’s is one of the largest, occupying about 500,000 sq ft, said Maiden’s planning director, Sam Schultz.
But environmental groups say the spread of cloud computing has led to a big jump in electricity use by the IT industry – and much of that power comes from heavily polluting coal. Data centres currently consume about 3% of US power supply, according to Greenpeace. North Carolina gets most of its electricity from coal and nuclear.
Duke Energy, which supplies the plant, gets 78% of its power from coal and nuclear, according to its annual sustainability report. Companies are not required to disclose their energy use, or their carbon footprint, and tech companies tend to be secretive about how much electricity they use, the Greenpeace report said.
It’s not even clear when Apple intends to break ground on the solar facility. Todd Herms, Maiden’s town manager, said the company had yet to approach the town for a building permit. There are few clues towards Apple’s plans in its initial permit, which lays out plans for the company to bank the soil to avoid it washing into nearby creeks.
“The plans say solar farm but for all the permits show they could be putting a big mobile home park there,” said Norton.