Renewable Energy For Apple Stores — A Long-Term Goal

May 28, 2014 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Even after hiring hiring a new executive to handle environmental issues, Apple’s Apple’s plan to switch the company’s retail stores to renewable energy will take several years, complicated by government regulation and the necessities of operating a brightly-lit and high-powered chain in 14 countries. Apple is ready to purchase renewable energy and pay a premium price to make a 100 percent conversion, but like other retail chains, is bogged down in reaching its goal. [I am an Apple stockholder.]

In a recent interview, Lisa Jackson, VP for Environmental Initiatives, said the company’s data centers are already 100 percent powered by renewable energy. Worldwide, the company’s corporate facilities are 94 percent powered by renewable sources, including solar, wind, hydro or even geothermal. Jackson also said that over 120 retail stores are now totally powered by renewable energy.

The primary obstacle to converting Apple’s retail chain to renewable energy is that it’s simply not readily available. It’s a rare electric utility that derives all of its energy from a renewable source, and there are still many utilities that produce no renewable energy at all. In fact, during 2013 just 6.5 percent of all electric power generation was from renewable sources in the United States (13 percent if you count hydro). As a result, an Apple store connected to a utility can never be 100 percent green by simply plugging in to the standard power grid.

Generating green energy on-site at an Apple store is nearly impossible. The logistics of installing solar panels or wind generators on top of or near a store rule out direct generation. The power load of an Apple store would require a substantial field of solar panels or of wind turbines, along with the necessary switching and power regulation circuitry.

The delivery and sourcing of green electricity is also complicated by the location of Apple’s stores—two-thirds are within shopping malls. The remaining stores are located in leased, street-level locations that offer only slightly more flexibility in obtaining power.

Apple’s interior design and architecture also contribute to the green energy conversion process. The stores are still using power-hungry incandescent lamps for almost every lighting task. They are used throughout the public retail space, although fluorescent fixtures are used in select locations. Back-of-house spaces are lit by fluorescent, and LED lighting is used for exit signs and some back-lit Apple logos. According to blueprints for several mall-based Apple stores, this mixture of lighting sources means a typical 6,200 square-foot Apple store consumes from 15,000 to 20,000 watts when the store is open.

The always-connected and operable display products are a sales advantage for the Apple stores, but also contribute to the power load. A 27-inch iMac consumes 79.1 watts while operating, and a MacBook Pro 15-inch 16.5 watts. An iPhone 5s in a charger consumes a tiny 0.011 watts. But taken all together, a medium-size store’s 150 display products consume nearly 4,000 watts. Behind the scenes are other power-consuming systems, including air conditioning, telephone, data servers, break room refrigerators and other appliances.

All these categories of power load total about 25,000 watts, on-line seven days a week during shopping hours, which typically extends into darkness. On-site power generation would need to supply this electricity, and would also have to store power for periods when there is no sun or wind.

But there is a solution to Apple stores becoming more green—renewable energy credits (REC). These credits certify that a block of power was generated from renewable sources, and can be purchased by a business or consumer—always at a premium—to supply their electricity. Once a REC is purchased, the customer’s regular utility “pipes” that renewable electricity from the source and into their system, where its distributed to all customers. However, the REC buyer can take the credit for being 100 percent green. It’s likely that Apple is using RECs to supply the renewable power for the 120 stores that are now declared as using 100 percent renewable energy.

Apple has said that its Palo Alto (CA), North Michigan Avenue (Chicago) and Fifth Avenue (NYC) stores are among those totally powered by renewable energy. All are street-level stores. Perhaps not coincidentally, the city of Palo Alto is the only city in the state to operate its own electric utility, including a “carbon neutral” program.

Expanding the number of green retail stores beyond the United States will take even more time. In the U.S., there are some states that have not yet updated their regulations to allow alternate power providers, and other states that don’t yet have green energy regulations. Outside the U.S., electric utilities are more diverse, both in power sources and supply regulation. For example, in France, just 13 percent of electric power comes from renewable sources, while overall 78 percent is generated from nuclear. In Canada, 60 percent is from renewable sources, mostly from hydro. Likewise, Germany produces just 16 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, depending mostly on coal. The UK reports just five percent of electricity from renewable. All these variations signify difficulties in obtaining enough renewable power for the Apple stores.

The power challenge for Apple is like designing and manufacturing many of its products—sometimes you’re ahead of the trend. In this case, Apple is ready to begin using renewable energy, but when will the power utilities be ready to provide it?

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