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Apple building solar farm for data center

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Apple (s AAPL) has been laying plans for a solar farm next to its massive data center in Maiden, N.C., according to The Charlotte Observer. (s mni) 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(s GOOG), Yahoo (s YHOO), 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.

12 Responses to “Apple building solar farm for data center”

  1. This raises some good points. My partner and I blog on the sustainability movement from a business perspective ( and this is a recurring theme. The crux of the clean energy (wind, solar, geothermal) quandary is building a business case for investing in it. In other words, from a business perspective, what is the ROI? Depending on tax credits and incentives, this tends to be at least 5-7 years. If we hope to see less dependence on carbon fuels, we need to figure out business models for alternative energy that shorten this time. We have the technology and we need the jobs. It seems like a nation that can put a man on the moon should be able to figure this out!

  2. Nice to see Apple is doing it’s part to save Texas from crippling droughts. Solar is getting a lot cheaper and is probably at grid parity already on larger projects.
    If you figure in the cost of extreme climate events witnessed over the last couple of years, from Russia to Texas, Solar is indeed a steal!
    Everybody listens to GreenPeace, These guys are literally giving their lives for a better more sustainable tomorrow!
    BTW: There is no more climategate nonsense, it has been proven now without a doubt, the world is warming and warming fast!
    this from the Economist: The heat is on:

  3. Greenpeace is arguably the most effective environmental organization in the world. For years they’ve run campaigns to greening the electronics industry and Apple was, and remains, an obvious target and a big success story. Apple was given a surprisingly low score when GP started reviewing companies and, as I recall, Jobs himself was miffed about the bad press and damage to the image of Apple. Then changes in Apple’s lineup were fast and furious and Apple’s marketing arm started mentioning everything from the recyclability of MacBook cases to the safer chemical content of LED monitors. If you don’t credit Greenpeace with forcing every internal change at Apple — including adding new design mandates for the hardware engineers — you must see that they forced Apple to salvage its deteriorating environmental image. On this front, and many others, Greenpeace should be judged by the dramatic results their campaigns have achieved. Too little (of course: electronics remains a pollutive, energy-intensive, and unsustainable industry) and too late (for a warming world) but dramatic.

  4. maclouie

    If solar energy were economically feasible then all data centers would be 100% solar powered all the time. Obviously, this and other data centers install clean energy just for PR. Long term – waste of money and waste of energy (excuse the pun).

  5. Greenpeace is a leader in the niche of ethically-challenged, self-serving enviro organizations. They shouldn’t be considered a significant representative of any portion of the movement, itself.

    Little different from the average bible-thumping TV evangelist.

  6. varied thinking

    Greenpeace is old hat and hardly listened to anymore. Apple isn’t doing it because of them their doing it because there is more a benefit to doing than not.