Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

Does an iPhone really burn more coal than a refrigerator?

August 19, 2013: 10:38 AM ET

No. They cost 41¢/year to charge, and the iCloud is solar powered. So why the scary headlines?

Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 9.18.21 AMFORTUNE -- "Your iPhone uses more energy than a refrigerator," was Carmel Lobello's headline in The Week.

"The majority of the energy is used for cloud services, not charging the iPhone," wrote Ryan Gorman on The Mail Online, adding that "the majority of the energy used to power the cloud comes from coal."

Sounds pretty ominous, especially when you observe, as Bryan Walsh did in Time, that "the digital economy uses a tenth of the world's electricity -- and that share will only increase, with serious consequences for the economy and the environment."

Where is all this bad news coming from? From a study called "The Cloud Begins with Coal" by Mark Mills, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute who writes the Energy Intelligence column for Forbes.

Before you toss your iPhone in the recycling bin, a few points:

  • Click to enlarge. Source: EPRI.

    Click to enlarge. Source: EPRI.

    Whatever the cost of powering the Internet economy, iPhones are not the culprit. They are, in fact, unusually energy efficient. According to a 2012 study by Electric Power Research Institute, the cost of keeping an iPhone 5 charged is 41 cents a year. (See chart at right.)

  • Coal may be the world's No. 1 fuel for generating electricity, but it is not Apple's (AAPL). According to the company's most recent environmental report, its data centers are 100% powered by renewable energy, including a solar farm in Maiden, NC, that is supposed to be the largest end user-owned, onsite solar photovoltaic array in the U.S.
  • As Time's Wash points out in a well-researched update, Mark Mills, the author of the study everybody was citing, tends to exaggerate the Internet's power consumption because he believes burning all that coal is a good thing. He has founded several power-industry funded non-profit organizations and 2006 he co-authored "The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, The Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy."
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Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for

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