Apple reveals big solar, fuel cell plans for data center

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A few months ago it was revealed that Apple planned to build a solar array for its massive data center in North Carolina. Now according to Apple’s latest environmental report (hat tip CNET), the company has disclosed that its solar project will actually be pretty sizable at 20 MW, and it will be built on 100 acres, and will supply the company with 42 million kWh of solar power per year.

Apple calls the 20 MW solar project “the nation’s largest end user–owned, onsite solar array.” There’s other much larger solar PV projects being built in the U.S. by solar developers, which sell the solar power to utilities, like the 500 MW Blythe solar PV project, the 550 MW Topaz solar project and the 230 MW Antelope Valley solar project. But in terms of corporate user-owned solar projects, Apple’s is a big one.

Apple also says it plans to build a massive fuel cell farm at its data center that will use biogas (gas captured from decomposing biomass), which is an even more rare move for an Internet company. Apple’s planned fuel cell farm will be 5 MW when it goes online later in 2012, and Apple calls the project “the largest non-utility fuel cell installation operating anywhere in the country.” Apple notes that it already has a small 500 kilowatt biogas-powered fuel cell at its Cupertino facility.

These fuel cells are likely from either FuelCell Energy or Bloom Energy, though Apple didn’t disclose the supplier. I’ve reached out to these firms to learn more. Given the solar project is 20 MW, it probably will be developed by a well known supplier, so previous reports that the solar project will come from a company called Leaf Solar are probably wrong. If I had to guess who the solar suppliers could be, I’d say potentially SunPower or First Solar.

North Carolina has one of the dirtiest electrical grids in the country, with 61 percent of the power coming from coal, and 31 percent from nuclear. It also has some of the cheapest power, which is likely why Apple decided to build its data center there.

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