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Microsoft vs. Apple Still Making Headlines — in Renewable Energy

Microsoft vs. Apple wars have played out in the electronics industry for decades. That bitter competitive landscape, though, has changed significantly in this digital age with Apple's iUbiquity.

But they're still visibly competitive in another arena: both are among the top users of renewable energy according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And in the past few days they've been trading headlines again.

Microsoft Buys Into Wind Power for Data Center Ops

Microsoft buys more than 1.9 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of renewable energy credits (RECs) annually, according to the EPA, and last year the computer giant pledged to become carbon-neutral. Part of that is reducing energy consumption in facilities and data centers — and powering them with renewable energy.

To that end, yesterday Microsoft announced its first long-term power purchase agreement (PPA), a 20-year contract to buy all the energy produced from RES Americas' 110-MW Keechi Wind project northwest of Fort Worth, Texas to be built next year and operational in 2015. That energy will go into the grid to help power the company's data center in nearby San Antonio, which already uses recycled wastewater for cooling. "We have a long-standing ambition to move in the direction of sourcing more clean energy as a company," stated Rob Bernard, Microsoft's chief environmental strategist, and "this is an opportunity to go to the next stage and invest directly in green energy."

Microsoft's demonstrating its support for renewable energy at other U.S. facilities as well. Its Silicon Valley campus has a solar power system that offsets 15 percent of its energy needs, a data center in Quincy, Washington gets 83 percent of its electricity from local hydropower, and another data center being built in Wyoming will house fuel cells powered by biogas from a nearby water treatment plant to be completely "zero-carbon."

Of course this isn't the first data center to embrace renewable energy. Naturally, Apple has been doing it for a while, too. And so has Google.

Apple Antes Up for Ex-First Solar Plant

Meanwhile, Apple is making a splash on another front, reportedly ponying up more than $500 million in a new supply deal for a key supplier. GT Advanced Technologies revealed yesterday that it's entered into a multi-year supply agreement with Apple to provide sapphire material, which is used to make the tougher, scratch-resistant camera lens on newer iPhones (and perhaps eventually the entire screen surface in the future, but that's still up for debate). The deal apparently involves production out of a "new" manufacturing facility in Mesa, Arizona, to employ anywhere from 700 to 1,300 workers and an "investment in renewable energy," according to Gov. Jan Brewer.

Technically, though, it isn't a brand-new facility — it's First Solar's former plant, which the company built out but never used and then sold off last month on the cheap. The site includes a 3.3-MW (AC) rooftop PV array; reports indicate the plant will be entirely powered by renewable energy, through both solar and possibly geothermal. Apple and GT confirmed the news but wouldn't offer details about the site itself or plans to expand the solar power generation; nor would the utility they're working with, Salt River Project.

It's worth noting that on the EPA's renewable-energy radar both Microsoft and Apple trail well behind Intel, which buys 3.1 billion kWh annually in RECs sourced from wind, solar, geothermal, low impact hydro, and biomass, as well as a small amount of on-site solar (7 MW and growing). Google, meanwhile, hasn't been on the EPA's lists since mid-2012.

Lead image: Sibling wrestling, two polar bear cubs playing about in pool, via Shutterstock

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