Apple to double its already massive fuel cell farm in North Carolina

Apple has decided to more than double the amount of fuel cells it is using to generate power at its data center in North Carolina, according to filings with the North Carolina Utility Commission, and first reported by The Charlotte Observer. Fuel cell provider Bloom Energy is installing 50 Bloom boxes at the site in the city of Maiden, which will produce 10 MW of electricity — previously Apple had been developing a 4.8 MW fuel cell project at the site.

The 4.8 MW portion of the site has been up and testing since October, according to Apple, and the company expects the full 10 MW farm to be installed and online by January 2013. Apple filed to boost the size of the project last month. However, filings about the cost of the project were kept confidential.

When fully completed Apple’s fuel cell farm will be the largest out there that isn’t owned by a utility. eBay has also been building a large fuel cell farm for a data center — at 30 fuel cells and 6 MW — but now that Apple doubled its project, it has taken the fuel cell data center lead.

Apple's massive solar farm in North Carolina, photo by WCNC-TV

Apple’s massive solar farm in North Carolina, photo by WCNC-TV

Some other interesting tidbits of the projects have come out in the new filings. Apple says it plans to sell the power from the fuel cells to local utility Duke Energy, which means Apple won’t necessarily be using the fuel cell energy onsite to power the data center. The fuel cells will use biogas, and Apple can earn money by selling the power and associated Renewable Energy Credits to Duke. It’s unclear if Apple will also be selling the power from its solar farm to Duke Energy, too. Apple also boosted the size of its solar farm from 20 MW to 40 MW.

If Apple is using grid power from Duke Energy for its data center, and selling the clean power to Duke, then it puts Apple in an interesting position. The computer giant on one hand would be contributing significantly to adding clean power to North Carolina’s energy mix, but at the same time would be running its data center off of the state’s mostly dirty grid power (mostly coal and nuclear).

Apple also says in filings that it will source the biogas for its fuel cells from Element Markets Renewable Energy, and the biogas used will come from landfills, though Apple didn’t disclose which landfills would be used. The biogas will be “directed biogas” which means it will be injected into natural gas pipelines and not used directly in the actual fuel cells at the site.

Here’s some more background reading on these projects:

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