VERGE SF 2013: Apple's Lisa Jackson talks sustainability

SAN FRANCISCO -- As Apple works toward a goal of sourcing 100 percent of its power from renewable sources, it's gained a new sustainability champion in the form of Lisa Jackson, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Now Apple's vice president of environmental initiatives, while at the EPA she led the way to build closer relations between the agency and private companies to help companies become greener.

Making choices

"It was my highest calling in public service," Jackson said in a VERGE SF conversation Wednesday with Joel Makower, GreenBiz Group's chairman and executive editor. It was her first appearance before a business audience since starting her new role with Apple in May.

After 25 years in public service, Jackson said, she developed a strong view that there is no reason to have to choose between either a healthy economy and a healthy environment.

"I wasn't going to go anywhere that didn't espouse those values," she said, adding she also wanted to go somewhere innovative and creative. "I tease sometimes that if you want to get something done even faster at Apple, just tell an Apple engineer that it can't be done."

The long view

In her position at Apple, her focus is on "everything" related to the environment, and her work is buttressed by what the company has already completed.

"Apple has been doing its life cycle analysis since 2009," she said. "We've already ratcheted down on a lot of areas, so that we know where the challenges are."

After initial life-cycle analyses (LCAs) of products, the company decided to focus on its facilities. During a two-year process, she said, Apple cut energy use at its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., by 30 percent -- through building energy efficiency efforts -- while growing 12 percent.

"It's somewhat low-hanging fruit, but we're not done yet," she said.

Beyond HQ

Apple is also embracing efficiency and renewable energy at its data centers. The company says that all of its data centers are powered completely by renewables -- although the details of that are in dispute -- and that all of its corporate facilities are at 75 percent renewable so far.

Scaling up renewables has been the big challenge.

"This is one of those great problems to toss at the engineers," Jackson said.

Apple starts first with making its facilities and data centers highly efficient, and then crafting how renewable energy can provide for its needs.

The company's Maiden, N.C., data center, for example, has a 100-acre solar array that soon will be joined by another array. It also features 50 fuel cells.

When Apple announced that facility would be 100 percent powered by renewables, some detractors said it would not be possible, Jackson said.

"They were thinking about the old technology that isn't efficient," she said.

Image of Lisa Jackson by Goodwin Ogbuehi, GreenBiz Group