News: CJ Exclusives

Apple clean energy project fined for environmental violations

Tech giant blames contractor that operates fuel cells for hazardous waste responsibilities

The Carolina Journal graphic from 2015 shows the Apple data center near Maiden. The fuel cells, or 'bloom boxes,' are in the lower left-hand corner of the image.
The Carolina Journal graphic from 2015 shows the Apple data center near Maiden. The fuel cells, or 'bloom boxes,' are in the lower left-hand corner of the image.

The N.C. Division of Environmental Quality has fined Apple Computer’s data center in Maiden more than $40,000 for violating the state’s Solid Waste Management Act.

Correspondence between Apple and state inspectors indicates Apple believed it followed state laws and that Bloom Energy — the maker of the fuel cells that inspectors cited at the data center — was responsible for any waste handling regulations. Bloom collects the hazardous material and transports it to a site in Texas for processing and disposal.

State inspectors disagreed and Oct. 2 notified the company of the violations and subsequent fines. Apple was fined $40,589 and also must pay $2,773 for investigative and inspection costs associated with the penalty. That’s in addition to $1,400 a year for two previous years, as well as each coming year because it generates 1,000 kilograms or more of hazardous waste.

Violations include a failure to conduct a proper waste determination for spent fuel filter materials, offering hazardous waste to transporters or disposal facilities that haven’t received an identification number from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, failure to prepare a hazardous waste manifest, failure to submit biennial reports to EPA and state regulators, and failure to maintain records on site.

Apple owns and operates 10 megawatts of biogas fuel cells, which convert natural gas into electricity through electrochemical reaction, instead of combustion. The cells contain desulfurization canisters that filter benzene and sulfur from the natural gas. The spent canisters are considered hazardous material and are subject to state laws.

The state inspected the Maiden site in February.

The initial visit was based on a tip from Lindsay Leveen. A longtime critic of Bloom Energy, Leveen, a chemical engineer and journalist, in 2003 wrote a textbook about fuel cells. Leveen told Carolina Journal he also provided information to EPA officials.

CJ called Apple’s media relations department for comment. At press time, it had not responded.

In December 2015, CJ reported that Apple’s renewable energy claims were misleading. In Apple’s 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report the company claims the Maiden center and all other Apple data centers operate on 100 percent renewable energy.

More specifically, Apple claims that since opening in June 2010 the Bloom biogas fuel cells adjacent to the Maiden data center have provided 28 percent of the facility’s energy. Apple says solar projects on site and nearby have provided 36 percent; renewable energy certificates account for 36 percent of the power; and investments in other solar projects managed by Duke Energy account for 8 percent.

Those claims are false. The data center gets its power directly from Duke Energy and, like most data centers, backup diesel generators are on site for emergency use. The Bloom fuel cells and the solar projects aren’t hooked up to the data center. Electricity generated by the Apple’s fuel cells and solar arrays, when it is available, is sold to Duke.

Apple bases its claims on the concept it “offsets” power purchased from Duke by generating power from renewable sources. No public records support the details of Apple’s offset concept, and Apple has refused to make any available. The natural gas used in the Bloom fuel cells is provided by Piedmont Natural Gas, which Duke Energy bought in 2016.

Apple offsets the natural gas use with landfill gas it buys and then adds to the gas pipeline at sites that may be hundreds of miles away. Apple considers this arrangement a renewable energy activity.

The EPA authorizes North Carolina to operate the state hazardous waste program in accordance with federal rules. Lisa Jackson serves as Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives and reports directly to CEO Tim Cook. Appointed by President Obama, Jackson served as the EPA Administrator from 2009 to 2013.