Why the new Apple iPad and iCloud still aren't green enough

People expect a lot from Apple, and that means almost any announcement from the company results in some disappointed fans. Take the new iPad that Apple unveiled Wednesday, for example.

Apple hasn't trumpeted its new iPad as a green paragon. But it appears that some clean-power advocates had hoped that the third iPad could ring in a cleaner new era for the cloud.

Gary Cook, a senior policy analyst for Greenpeace, released a statement Wednesday expressing disappointment that the Apple didn't unveil a clean-energy-powered cloud along with its latest hot device.

“For all the new features promised in the new iPad, Apple has yet to unveil the most important one: an iCloud powered by clean energy," he said in the statement. "Innovative tablet products like Apple's latest iPad use the 'cloud'  to store photos, music and documents, and Greenpeace relies on this technology and embraces its benefits as much as the rest of the world. But cloud-based storage and computing is shifting our data to energy-intensive computer farms, or data centers, that are growing at an unprecedented rate."

Data centers are using a growing portion of the world's electricity: If the global cloud was a country, its aggregate electricity demand would make it among the top five in the world, according to Greenpeace. And many are located in areas powered by coal and other dirty sources of electricity, the environmental advocacy group says.  

Now, Apple said last month that it is adding 20 megawatts of solar power – and 5 megawatts of biogas-powered fuel cells – to its new data center in North Carolina, which also has a platinum LEED designation. And it announced Tuesday that SunPower would be providing the solar panels.

That's not enough to keep Greenpeace happy. These clean-energy investments "will at best supply less than 10 percent of the estimated total electricity demand" at the data center, the group claims.

And Greenpeace isn't alone in seeing a missed chance for Apple to push the envelope on sustainability.

As Paul Baier, vice president of sustainability consulting at Groom Energy and a GreenBiz contributor, put it: "Apple continues to miss an opportunity to cement the corporate responsibility and environmentally sustainable part of its massively popular brand. … Apple is starting to be well known as a company that could care less about the corporate responsibility, and such an approach risks Apple products becoming a visible symbol of 'greed-at-all-costs,' rather than innovation."

He called Apple's efforts in energy efficiency, responsible supply chain and responsible product reuse "lackluster" and "subpar."

Many others have weighed in on the previous iPads' environmental impacts. An opinion piece in The New York Times in 2010 asserted that an e-reader amounts to 100 books worth of global warming. And GigaOM gave the original iPad a "green grade" of B.

When GreenBiz editor Matt Wheeland reviewed the first iPad back in 2010, he concluded that it had many green elements – including impressive energy efficiency, recyclable materials and lack of toxic chemicals – but was still likely to have a negative effect on the environment overall.

In spite of the iPad's many green features, Wheeland points out that it's likely to be an additional device for most consumers. Most buyers probably will keep their computers and their phones, along with their iPad, which will therefore use more energy and more materials than if they just stuck with their original devices.