TIME Technologizer

A Rare Look Inside an Apple Data Center

Yet more proof that Apple is not quite as secretive as it once was, when it thinks openness is in its own interest: The company showed off one of its data centers, in Sparks, Nevada, to Wired’s Stephen Levy for a good piece on its renewable-energy efforts. They’re led by Lisa Jackson, a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ninety-four percent of the power at Apple’s corporate campus and server farms is now renewable, provided by sources such as solar, wind and hydroelectric energy. One hundred percent of the power at Apple’s own data centers — it also uses co-location facilities owned by others — is renewable.

Both Google and Facebook are also aiming for 100% renewable data centers, but have a long way left to go. However, since Apple, unlike those companies, is primarily a producer of physical objects, being environmentally correct involves a different set of challenges and a lot more than data:

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.

Levy’s story is full of intriguing nuggets, but one item a lot of people are probably wondering about goes unmentioned. He says that the only thing about his data-center visit Apple told him he couldn’t share with the world was the name of the manufacturer of the servers that power it. All he can disclose is that “they are not Mac Mini’s or anything else that you’d buy in an Apple store.”

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