Google and Apple are two of the biggest names in the computing world today, and they compete in everything from phones to tablet computers. In the past year, Android, Google’s phone operating system, has taken a large share of the market away from the ubiquitous iPhone. But these two giants have also started to compete in another part of their business: sustainability performance and reporting.
Earlier this year I wrote a blog post on the Consumer Electronics Show and the release of their 2010 CEA Sustainability Report. Apple was featured in the report as a case study for sustainable product design. CEA commended them for being the first in the industry to complete a comprehensive life cycle analysis for every product that Apple ships to determine where its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions came from. This analysis helped Apple to see that 97% of its GHG emissions are directly associated with its products (e.g. manufacturing, customer use) and only 3% are due to facilities. Knowing where a business’s emissions are coming from is a crucial first step to any improvement plan. Apple’s Environment page includes a helpful graphic that breaks down each life cycle stage of a product an the relative impact on the environment.
Since most of Apple’s emissions are from their products, their focus has been on designing their products to use less material. According to their website, their iPod classic achieved a 50% reduction in carbon emissions between 2001 and 2010. They also have used smaller packaging techniques to increase transportation efficiency. And in regard to their product use category, which accounts for 46% of their total carbon emissions, Apple has designed every single product to meet the government’s Energy Star guidelines.
Although facilities only account for 3% of Apple’s total carbon emissions, they have still been making some improvements. Most impressive is the fact that three locations (Austin Texas; Sacramento, California; Cork, Ireland) are 100% powered by renewable energy. They’ve also begun offering a biodiesel commuter coach to some employees, currently only used by up to 800 Apple employees per day.
In January, Apple was awarded a patent for a solar-powered portable device. Although this is just a “step in the green direction” and many other patents and existing products are already out there for solar-powered charging techniques, it’s still a smart step and a strong example for others to follow. As a leader in the electronics market, whatever Apple does will cause others to take notice.
Another possible move is the development of some of Apple’s commercial real estate in Cupertino. Apple has reportedly hired Forster + Partners for the design, a well-known design firm that pays particular attention to green issues such as using renewable energy resources and incorporating the best energy-efficiency techniques into materials and equipment.
Google has been making great efforts to improve their data centers. Their data center page gives a helpful overview and explains efficient computing, how their measure their data center efficiency (a Power Usage Effectiveness metric), their Server Retirement Program to maximize machine reuse, data center best practices, and notes from the Efficient Data Center Summit held in 2009. (They also mention their plans to attend a European Data Centre Summit this week in Switzerland).
Just like Apple, Google also uses biodiesel shuttles to help their employees commute to work in a more eco-friendly way. Google claims to drive “thousands of employees” in their shuttles every day — certainly higher than Apple’s 800. Google also supports employees that choose a carbon-free commute (e.g. cycling, walking) by donating to their favorite charities based on how often they self-power their commute. Google’s green operations page details several other initiatives, including the use of goats for grass grazing (instead of lawnmowers), details of their carbon offsets, the Climate Savers Computing initiative, participation in the Green Power Market Development Group, their LEED-certified office in San Francisco, and the use of Energy Star-rated office equipment.
Google’s green innovation page highlights some of their more creative projects. The Google PowerMeter is a free energy monitoring tool that allows you to view your home’s energy consumption online. Tracking your energy is a great tool to help you reduce energy use, but right now the PowerMeter is only available in a few areas in the U.S. and Europe. Google has invested over $38 million into two North Dakota wind farms, and they’ve agreed to invest in the Atlantic Wind Connection project. Since renewable energy projects (e.g. wind, solar) require expensive capital, it’s important to have investments like this to get them started.
Other long-term projects from Google include Enhanced Geothermal Systems and related investments to geothermal energy research (Potter Drilling, AltaRock Energy, Southern Methodist University Geothermal Lab, and Stanford University). And the RE<C project is aimed at taking calculated financial risk to accelerate clean energy down the cost curve. The goal is to help make renewable energy (RE) cheaper than coal (C), hence the name RE<C.
Overall, it’s great to see these two companies making concentrated efforts to reduce their carbon footprints and both have made some significant progress. Both Apple and Google continue to redesign their products (in Google’s case, data centers) and facilities using a variety of methods and practices. But it’s Google’s commitment to long-term projects such as renewable energy investments and home energy use monitoring that really gives them the edge in the race to sustainability.