Photo: charnsitr (Shutterstock)
You might be seeing talk online about the iPhone’s new “Clean Energy Charging” feature, 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 little more complicated than that, and it doesn’t just affect your iPhone. It’s definitely a net good, and a feature you likely will never really notice in normal use.
Apple isn’t the only company rolling out “clean energy” features: Microsoft’s also in the game, and actually beat Apple to the punch. Right now, you’ll find similar charging options on iPhone, Windows, and Xbox. For all the hullabaloo, clean energy features are pretty straightforward, and offer a creative solution to reducing our collective tech-produced carbon footprint.
How “Clean Energy” features work
Whether it’s about charging your iPhone, or installing updates on your Xbox, these features all work similarly: Your device will look for regional carbon intensity data, when available, to determine the times when a higher percentage of power in your area is being supplied by lower-carbon sources on your electric grid (such as solar, wind, or hydro). It isn’t waiting until there are zero carbon sources on the grid, but pinpointing those times when carbon sources are least utilized. It will then schedule background tasks to run during these periods of cleaner energy, aiming to reduce the total carbon impact of the device.
So, your iPhone will wait until the electricity is greenest to charge your device. If you pick up your iPhone while this is happening, you’ll see an alert letting you know charging is paused until lower-carbon energy is available. It works as part of its optimized battery charging feature, which learns from your iPhone usage to only finish charging when iOS thinks you’ll need a full battery. In theory, iOS will only use Clean Energy Charging when it believes you won’t need the power yet. That’s why Apple says it won’t kick on during disruptions to your normal routine, such as when you’re traveling.
For Microsoft’s part, your Xbox or PC might wait until it thinks it will have the lowest carbon impact to run automatic updates in the background. On the Xbox, Shutdown mode is the default, which uses much less energy than Sleep mode. Shutdown mode still supports automatic updates and preserving your place in a game, but it takes roughly 45 seconds to power on, and doesn’t allow for voice activation or remote wake.
None of this is particularly new, by the way: Microsoft started testing a clean energy approach via system updates back in March of 2022. Apple released Clean Energy Charging as part of iOS 16.1 on Oct. 24.
So, why are people suddenly so mad about clean energy features?
There seem to be two sides to the criticism here. One is a raw reaction from those on the right, who view this tech as a type of liberal indoctrination. As the beloved Texas Senator Ted Cruz puts it:
Cruz and other right-leaning folks are pretending to be mad 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 forcing Xbox users to accept these new green rules, and extending that same view to any company that dares implement green energy features as well.
That, of course, is nonsense. You can open your iPhone right now, head to Settings > Battery > Battery Health & Charging, and disable Clean Energy Charging at any time. That way, if the feature does kick on when you need your iPhone to be charging, you can quickly disable it and power up. Apple even gives you the option to disable it for the day, if you want to keep using it going forward. You can do the same on your Xbox from Profile & system > Settings > General > Power options, switching the console back to Sleep mode if you miss fast boot or any of its other power-on features.
But that points towards the second 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 it was okay with you that your console now boots into Shutdown mode instead of Sleep mode.
I can understand not liking settings being added without your explicit consent, but I also understand why companies are doing it in this case. Because each device is really only saving a small amount of energy individually, you need a mass movement of devices all saving energy to make an impact. Plus, most of us will never notice the difference. Your iPhone likely won’t use Clean Energy Charging when you need quick charge after forgetting to plug in last night. You’ll never know if your Xbox switched its scheduled update from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. because it had more wind energy to work with at that hour. In practice, the feature is often seamless, and it helps reduce our collective carbon footprint.