Apple building solar farm for data center

Apple's $1 billion North Carolina data center built to power iCloud services.

Apple has been laying plans for a solar farm next to its massive data center in Maiden, N.C., according to The Charlotte Observer. The solar project — dubbed Project Dolphin Solar Farm — will reportedly be built on 171 acres of land across the street from Apple’s planned $1 billion data center, which had the code name Project Dolphin, but is now being called iDataCenter, and will likely partly serve the Apple’s cloud-based service iCloud.

The report provides few details, and leaves us wondering about the size of the solar farm, the companies that will build the solar project, and how much Apple is spending on the project (or the price at which Apple is buying the clean electricity). Solar farms that have been built next to data centers in the past commonly are relatively small and can only power a small portion of data center’s power needs.

While Google, Yahoo, Facebook and others have been rather vocal about their interest in clean power and greener data centers, this is one of the first times I’ve heard about Apple showing any interest in providing its data centers with clean power. In fact, Greenpeace estimated that Apple only sourced 6 percent of the power for its data centers from clean power (the worst on Greenpeace’s list), and gave Apple a straight “F’ for its decisions to build its data centers in areas with little clean power.

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.

Greenpeace was so harsh on Apple because Internet companies, with their strong consumer brands and significant balance sheets, have an opportunity to have a big effect on how utilities source their electricity. If a company like Google or Apple ask for clean energy from utilities — or even build their own clean power farms — then the web companies can go a long way towards providing both leadership for the industry and also for reducing their sizable energy footprints.

Building more energy-efficient data centers and finding cleaner sources of power for data centers, has suddenly become an important issue, as more and more web services have been moving to the cloud, and hyper-connected, always-on devices, have emerged as the norm. iCloud is Apple’s big foray into cloud-based music and photos. Apple has two data centers planned for the Maiden, N.C. site, and I’m not sure which one the solar farm will contribute power to.

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