Whose Energy Freedom?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013, by Catherine Clodfelter

Apple is now proudly announcing that its data center in Maiden, North Carolina, is running off of 100% renewable energy.   Apple has an energy goal that does not stop in Maiden, but extends to every data center and every Apple facility.  Accounting for all facilities worldwide, Apple says it is currently running 75% of its facilities using renewable energy.  The power generation on-site includes two solar installations and fuels cells which rely on renewable biogas. Although some of the power is generated on-site, including solar arrays and fuel cells, Apple will still need to use other energy sources to reach its goal.

Observers point out that “using” renewable energy could also mean purchasing offsets or off-site renewable sources. North Carolina, being the second-largest hog farming state in the United States, provides an abundant source of biogas, in the form of hog waste.  Although Apple’s fuel cells are on-site, they rely on off-sight generated biogas (it is assumed).  Regardless, Apple reports that any off-site energy generation will come from regional or local sources.

A debate is now playing out across the country on the state level as to what requirements the state should impose on electricity companies to generate renewable energy, and Apple’s renewable energy efforts raise an interesting point in that debate.

This is a quadruple bonus for North Carolina, right?  We get the jobs (provided we can educate ourselves well enough to qualify for said jobs) required to run the data center; we get the publicity of having green energy businesses; we have something arguably productive to do with the waste our hogs produce in meeting the nation’s taste for Lexington BBQ (disregarding valid arguments that biogas production is prohibitively costly—I’ll leave that discussion for another day); and we have demand for a side economy of locally produced renewable energy needed to reach Apple’s 100%.

It appears that businesses entering North Carolina want to be able to purchase renewable resources.  That would be great news, except a contingency in the North Carolina legislature is currently attempting to dismantle North Carolina’s Renewable Energy Resource Portfolio (REPS), under the “Electricity Freedom Act”.  Proponents claim the requirement that energy companies diversify energy production and require a certain amount of renewable energy be produced reduces the freedom of us all.  It would be humorous that the bill is titled the “Electricity Freedom Act”, but I live here.

I’ll grant the argument that some attempts to use “renewable resources” might actually be less productive and harmful to the environment.  That could be fixed by amending, instead of nullifying, the REPS standards. I’ll also grant that energy companies might find it less productive and reducing profits to have to meet these requirements.  Although there may be (I’ll not attempt to dispute or confirm the legitimacy or impact here) concerns that electricity rates are raised when renewable energy requirements are imposed because they are harder to produce, North Carolina, is full of wind and sun energy potential.  Additionally, a 2012 industry census performed in North Carolina reveals that clean energy stimulates economy and creates jobs.

If only Apple wants these renewable energies, and producing renewable energy really is a drain on the energy economy, the downsides might outweigh the economic benefits. But Apple is not the only company investing in working completely on renewable energy.  Notably among a long list of renewable energy invested businesses is the US military, which also has a strong presence in North Carolina and a publicized need to draw from North Carolina’s renewable energy resources.

A debate is now playing out across the country on the state level as to what requirements the state should impose on electricity companies to generate renewable energy, and Apple’s renewable energy efforts raise an interesting point in that debate.  I am certainly not saying that Apple’s needs in reaching a self-imposed goal should drive our state policies.  I am suggesting that in a time when attracting companies to North Carolina is a large concern, the desires of all businesses and the customers supporting them should be a part of the discussion if we are truly to assess what type of energy we should be “free” to choose.