Apple's 20MW solar plant distracts from PR disasters

Apple has officially announced a large scale solar plant project will go ahead to help clean up the image of its fossil-fuel devouring North Carolina datacentre.

Last August, it emerged that Apple would begin working on a massive $1 billion datacentre to create capacity for its iCloud service.

One of the reasons Apple decided on North Carolina was said to be because of cheap access to coal power on the state’s grid. The second option was Virginia, which has a similarly poor record with ‘dirty’ energy.

Apple decided to start planning a solar plant to lessen its carbon footprint.  This followed criticism over the datacentre’s reliance on cheap fossil fuels by groups such as Greenpeace.  At the time, local residents also derided the environmental cost of clearing the controversial solar plant site.

Now, the result of this preparation has led to the official announcement of a 20MW solar plant – which will generate 42 million kWh of energy each year.   Further details about costs and time until completion were not available as part of the report.

Apple claims that the move “paves the way to achieve our goal of powering these facilities with 100 percent renewable energy”, though it is unlikely that the 20MW plant will come close to the amount needed to keep the behemoth datacentre afloat.

Apple is, however, also planning on generating further energy through a 5MW biogas-powered fuel cell project.

The timing of the announcement is interesting.  Apple is in the midst of a whirlwind of bad PR over in China, with Foxconn factory investigations enough to have Apple’s customers spit their fair-trade lattes all over their iPads. With the solar project seemingly on the boil for months now, a cynic would suggest it a good opportunity to divert attention to its noble environmental work in the US.

With much of the dirty work involved in Apple’s production occurring in the East, its environmental reputation has hardly been squeaky-clean.  In China independent environmental firms are looking to investigate hazardous waste leaks among Apple suppliers, according to reports, and the firm was forced to meet with environmental groups over the impact of its supply chain last November.

Greenpeace has also shamed the company over its lack of environmental awareness in the past, taking it off its list of ‘green’ tech companies.

While Apple has moved up a Greenpeace chart for emissions, it is still arguably problematic in terms of its carbon footprint – and its North Carolina solar plant might not be enough to change this.

It is at least an attempt to address the growing problem of a reliance on traditional datacentres.  With the IT industry already accounting for 2-3 percent of total global emissions it is likely that, without change, this is set to grow.

Other large tech firms have also been attempting to soften their image.  Google, for example, has invested large amounts of cash in solar projects.  This has involved its own solar plants, as well as financing power generation in American homes.