Is This Green Conflict of Interest a Red Flag at Apple?


Conflicts of interest can be a doozy.

A trip down memory lane
When it comes to Apple (NAS: AAPL) , the biggest and most apparent one in recent memory was when Google's (NAS: GOOG) then-CEO Eric Schmidt sat on Apple's board at a time when the iOS-vs.-Android rivalry was just heating up, before reaching the thermonuclear proportions it sees today.

Schmidt joined Apple's board in August 2006, just five months before Steve Jobs unveiled the original iPhone in January 2007. Google had already acquired Android a year before Schmidt became a director, so the respective mobile gears within these tech titans were already turning.

Turn the clock forward to 2009, and fellow Fool Anders Bylund rightly proclaims, "Eric Schmidt Should Resign!" After all, the dueling duo found themselves increasingly at odds, be it iOS vs. Android (mobile operating systems), Safari vs. Chrome (Web browsers), MobileMe vs. Gmail (cloud-based email), or Mac OS X vs. Chrome OS (PC operating systems).

After all, it doesn't make much sense to have your nemesis' leader sitting in on strategic boardroom meetings taking notes. Just a short month after Anders' demands, he got his way.

Let bygones be bygones
What's done is done, but a new potential conflict of interest has now reared its troublesome head in the iBoardroom. This time it involves none other than former Vice President and current Apple director Al Gore.

Source: Data center in Maiden, N.C.

Apple has a monstrously enormous data center in Maiden, N.C., home to the server farms that make iCloud happen, which also include the presence of Nuance Communications' (NAS: NUAN) speech recognition engine that provides the backbone to Siri. (Remember, everyone uses server-based speech engines nowadays).

Of all places
Why did Apple pick rural Maiden for the site of this data center in the first place? The location is so important that Apple even effectively cut a blank check to a happy couple whose home of 34 years was in the way. The couple turned down Cupertino twice, and Apple finally "told [them] to put a price on it and [they] did." Their price? $1.7 million (they originally paid $6,000 for it).

So again: Why Maiden? Energy. Cheap, dirty energy.

The area is known for having low-cost energy -- among the cheapest rates in the nation, since the power is generated from coal and nuclear sources. Local utility Duke Energy (NYS: DUK) was all too happy to be an inadvertent beneficiary of Apple's iCloud, as Duke stood to bring in tens of millions every year from Apple's business.

This is precisely why Greenpeace called out Cupertino, saying that 95% of the area's energy grid comes from "dirty, dangerous" sources.

In fairness, this data center boasts a Platinum certification (the highest level) in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. Apple brags that this is the only data center of its size to achieve this level of certification. The data center may use energy efficiently, but that doesn't address where that energy comes from.

Apple's green response to Greenpeace's criticism is twofold: Build a massive solar array in addition to the nation's largest private hydrogen fuel-cell generator.

SunPower (NAS: SPWR) has scored the win with the solar portion, which is a solid victory for the company as the supplier for Apple's 20-megawatt solar farm. On the other side, Bloom Energy is set to be the provider of the 5-megawatt fuel-cell farm.

Who's Bloom?
The National Center for Public Policy Research, or NCPPR, is a conservative think tank that's calling out Gore's role. Gore is a partner to venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, or KPCB.

KPCB is a backer for Bloom, meaning that Gore may see some financial gain from Apple's contract with Bloom -- a conflict of interest.

Did you bring your salt?
The NCPPR itself, which is an Apple shareholder, isn't entirely unbiased, as a vocal supporter of decidedly un-green energy policies like coal and fossil fuels in general. NCPPR director Tom Borelli recently bashed Obama's anti-coal proposal.

Even in the press release notifying Apple shareholders of the potential conflict of interest, Borelli states, "Shareholders must question why Apple is choosing to pay a premium for alternative energy when there are many sources of cheaper energy available in North Carolina, such as coal." Borelli even alleges that Gore is trying to "bail out his personal investments in alternative energy and green technology."

The bottom line for Apple shareholders
Does the arrangement present a potential conflict of interest for Apple? Absolutely. Is the conflict less egregious than the one with Eric Schmidt? By far. Does Gore have good intentions by (presumably) facilitating the deal? Of course.

Most importantly, is this deal best for the environment? Yes, without a doubt.

Apple goes to great lengths to be as green as possible, and you can be sure that Gore plays a significant role in Cupertino's proactivity. Apple even provides detailed reports on the environmental impact of all of its primary products.

Ultimately, so long as Apple's doing what's best for the earth, I don't mind (as a shareholder) if Gore ends up making a few bucks (not like he needs it).

Being green will help us secure the planet's future, which is a worthy goal that will take a lifetime to achieve. In the meantime, if you want to secure your own financial future, check out these nine rock-solid dividend stocks.

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorEvan Niuhas a synthetic long options position in Nuance Communications and owns shares of Apple and Nuance Communications, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Check out hisholdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Google.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Nuance Communications, Google, and Apple and creating a bull call spread position in Apple. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.

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