Apple & co embrace renewable energy

More and more major companies in the US are turning to renewable energy as big names such as Apple, Google and Walmart invest in solar, wind and hydropower. As John Dyer in Boston reports, Rhode Island will soon boast the country’s first offshore wind farm.

More and more American companies are turning to renewable energy, including big players such as Apple, Google and Walmart. (Image credit: Intel Free Press, flickr/Creative Commons)

More and more American companies are turning to renewable energy, including big players such as Apple, Google and Walmart. (Image credit: Intel Free Press, flickr/Creative Commons)

Apple has joined the ranks of electricity producers after the US government gave the tech giant permission to sell solar energy to the country’s electrical grid.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s decision is part of a trend of major American companies entering the renewable energy business that includes Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Walmart.

Those businesses have invested big into solar farms and wind panels to power their vast, energy-guzzling operations in recent years and build a reputation as modern, environmentally responsible companies.

Millions for clean energy

Apple has allocated USD 850 million for a 130-megawatt solar farm in Silicon Valley. Google has inked 16 contracts to buy 2.2 gigawatts of clean energy, the equivalent to removing more than 1 million cars off roads, to achieve its goal of operating solely on renewables. General Motors, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble and Walmart have helped establish the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, a group that helps businesses transition to renewable energy.

Corporate clean energy production has more than doubled annually in the last three years, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based think tank. Last year, 11 big businesses agreed to fund 3.23 gigawatts of solar, wind and other renewable production equivalent to five coal plants and a 173 per cent increase from 2014, the Institute said.

Cloud storage requires massive energy

For tech companies, the need for more processing power is driving the trend, said Brian Janous, who oversees Microsoft’s energy strategy. Customers now expect to use mobile phones and other portable devices that rely on constant contact with the internet via the cloud, he said.

The server facilities required to maintain cloud services require as much as 50 times the energy than ordinary commercial office buildings, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Data centre now use around 2 per cent of the US’s total electricity consumption.

“We are all becoming very large energy players, and this is a shift,” said Janous. “Energy is not something that Microsoft or Amazon or Google really ever had to think much about prior to the advent of the cloud.”

First offshore wind farm

While the companies still receive much of their energy from coal-fired plants, the trend is moving in the direction of renewables. The UN Environment Program recently reported that spending on renewable energy hit almost USD 286 billion last year, a record.

This trend has finally reached US shores, as can be seen in the USD 300 million offshore wind turbine farm that is now being built. Sitting in the Atlantic Ocean near Block Island, the farm is the first of its kind in the country. It only sports five turbines that can power 17,000 homes.

The project overcame stiff opposition from local residents who feared the turbines might spoil the views and hurt tourism. Similar concerns stopped a proposed wind turbine farm off the idyllic coast of Cape Code in nearby Massachusetts.

A dramatic change after decades of inaction

“People have been talking about offshore wind for decades in the United States, and I’ve seen the reaction — eyes roll,” Jeffrey Grybowski, chief executive officer of Deepwater Wind, the Providence-based company that build the farm. “The attitude was, ‘It’s not going to happen; you guys can’t do it.’”

Jenny Heeter, an energy analyst at the Colorado-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said the tech companies, the Rhode Island project and other shifts, like the popularity of Silicon Valley electric carmaker Tesla, indicate that renewable energy is finally taking off in the US.

“It’s a dramatic change from even five years ago,” Heeter said.

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