Call it a "Gentleman's C."
In a new report, Greenpeace says that while Apple is doing a better job ensuring the energy efficiency of its data centers, the company still lags behind some competitors in key areas.
Greenpeace says that additional information Apple provided about its facilities in recent months has resulted in improved scores. That includes infrastructure siting, where Apple now has a "D" grade, up from an "F." Apple also improved from "D" to "C" ratings in energy efficiency and greenhouse gas mitigation, as well as renewable energy investment and advocacy.
In mid-May Apple announced its intention to operate its Maiden, N.C., data center entirely off renewable energy by the end of 2012. That plan involves introducing two solar array installations in the area, as well as a bio-gas fuel cell installation. Apple estimates this will produce more than half the power needed to keep the facilities running, with the remaining 40 percent coming from renewable "local and regional sources."
The report by the environmental watchdog group lauded Apple for the pledge but chided the company for what it says has been a lack of transparency on the road map to reach that goal.
"Apple has not released the details of how it intends to secure additional local clean electricity in North Carolina, and appears to be reliant on renewable energy credits (RECs) instead of buying renewable electricity directly," the group said. "Apple needs to put its money where its mouth is by looking beyond these first steps and using its tremendous cash reserves to invest in or directly purchase renewable energy."
In a statement, Apple said it is an industry leader in renewable energy use at its data centers.
"We're committed to building the world's most environmentally responsible data centers and are leading the industry in the use of renewable energy, including the nation's largest private solar arrays and non-utility fuel cell installation," an Apple spokeswoman told CNET. "As we've said before, our North Carolina and California data centers will be coal-free as of February 2013 and our newest data centers in Oregon and Nevada will be designed to meet that standard from day one."
Apple has bolstered its cloud efforts in recent years. It introduced MobileMe as a paid subscription service in 2008, and retired it just a few weeks ago with the transition to iCloud, its storage and sync service. Like MobileMe (and .Mac before it), iCloud relies on the data centers to store user data and information, as well as pipe it between devices.
Apple's data centers also play an increasingly important role in powering Siri, the voice assistant feature for the iPhone 4S, and soon the iPad, as well as the voice dictation feature headed to Macs as part of Mountain Lion.
One area in which Apple was awarded no change in ratings was transparency. Greenpeace said simply that Apple needed to disclose more information about energy consumption at each of its facilities.
For its part, Apple promotes its own transparency on its environmental site, noting that it logs its renewable energy generation with North Carolina's Renewable Energy Tracking System. Greenpeace says that's not enough of the picture.
"Though the company has offered up additional details in the past several weeks relating to its cloud investments, Apple is still not disclosing data on its energy consumption and supply for its data centers, and has not revealed plans for how its data centers will be powered as they continue to grow," Greenpeace said.
The updated ratings improve Apple's position against the scores of other companies included in the April version of Greenpeace's report, but it still comes behind several others in key areas. Notably, Apple still falls behind companies like Amazon and Yahoo when it comes to the use of coal, and behind Dell, Yahoo, and Google on Greenpeace's "clean energy index." That's a Greenpeace-created metric that measures how much clean energy companies are using in their electricity supply chain.
The new report updates just Apple's scores among the 13 other companies from the original report in April. A Greenpeace representative says the group plans to revisit its scores specifically for Microsoft and Amazon over the next few months, with a plan to re-evaluate all the companies simultaneously next year.
Scrutiny on the environmental impact of Apple's products and overall business has increased in step with its growth, though the attention has traditionally skewed toward the makeup of Apple's hardware. Last month Apple quietly pulled out of its participation with the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) group, a third-party certification group that rates electronics on their environmental impact. In a statement earlier this week, Apple said that its products were still made to meet the Energy Star 5.2 guidelines, and that it posted extensive information about its environmental efforts on its Web site.