Here’s the deal with “Clean Energy” charging

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You can be looking talk online about the iPhone’s new “Clean Energy Charging” function, for better or for worse. Marques Brownlee calls it a “rare W for the environment“, while others criticize it for slowing down charging. The thing is, it’s a bit more complicated than that, and it doesn’t just affect your iPhone. It’s definitely a net good, and a feature you’ll probably never notice in normal use.

Apple isn’t the only company rolling out “clean energy” features: Microsoft is also in the game, and actually beat Apple to the punch. Right now you will find similar charging options on iPhone, Windows and Xbox. Despite all this, clean energy features are quite simple, and offer a creative solution to reducing our collective technology-produced carbon footprint.

How “Clean Energy” features work

Whether it’s charging your iPhone or installing updates on your Xbox, these functions all work in the same way: Your device will look for regional carbon intensity data, when available, to determine the times when a higher percentage of electricity in your area is to be included of lower carbon sources on your electrical grid (such as solar, wind or hydropower). There is no waiting until it is zero carbon sources online, but precise those times when carbon sources is least used. It will then schedule background tasks to run during these cleaner energy periods, aim to reduce the unit’s total carbon footprint.

So, the iPhone will wait until the power is greenest to charge the device. If you pick up your iPhone while this is happening, you’ll see a notification telling you that charging has been paused until lower-carbon energy is available. It works as part of it optimized battery charging function, which learns from your iPhone usage to only finish charging when iOS thinks you need a full battery. In theory, iOS will only use Clean Energy Charging when it thinks you don’t need the power yet. That’s why Apple says it won’t launch during disruptions to your normal routine, such as when you’re traveling.

For Microsoft’s part, your Xbox or PC may wait until it thinks it will have the lowest carbon impact to run automatic updates in the background. On Xbox, Shutdown mode is the default, which uses much less energy than sleep mode. Exit Mode still supports automatic updates and saving your place in a game, but it takes about 45 seconds to turn on and doesn’t allow for voice activation or remote wake-up.

None of this is particularly new, by the way: Microsoft began testing one clean energy approach via system updates back in March 2022. Apple launched Clean Energy Charging as part of iOS 16.1 on 24 Oct.

So why are people suddenly so mad about clean energy features?

There seem to be two sides to the criticism here. One is a crude reaction from those on the right, who see this technology as a type of liberal indoctrination. Like the beloved Texas senator Ted Cruz says so:

Cruz and other right wing people pretend to be angry because it makes them money. But when it comes to the Xbox specifically, they point to a problem all freedom-loving Americans should be angry about. They claim Microsoft is force Xbox users to accept these new green rules, and extend the same view to any company that dares to implement green energy features as well.

It’s nonsense, of course. You can unlock your iPhone right now, go to Settings > Battery > Battery health and charging, and disable Clean Energy Charging at any time. That way, if the function do turn on when you need your iPhone to charge, you can quickly disable it and turn on. Apple even gives you the option to disable it for the day, if you want to continue using it going forward. You can do the same on Xbox from Profile & System > Settings > General > Power Optionsswitches the console back to sleep mode if you miss fast boot or any of its other boot features.

But that points to the other main criticism here: for the most part, these settings are enabled by default after a system update. Apple didn’t ask you if you wanted to enable Clean Energy charging after iOS 16.1 — it just added it for you. Microsoft didn’t make sure you were okay with the console now booting into shutdown mode instead of sleep mode.

I can understand not adding settings without your express consent, but I also understand why companies do it in this case. Because each unit really only saves a small amount of energy individually, you need a mass movement of energy-saving devices to make an impact. Besides, most of us will never notice the difference. Your iPhone probably won’t use Clean Energy Charging when you need fast charging after forgetting to connect last night. You will never know about yours Xbox switched the scheduled update from 1am to 3am because it had more wind energy to work with at that time. In practice, the function is often seamless, and it helps to reduce our collective carbon emissions.

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