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Apple reveals big solar, fuel cell plans for data center

A few months ago it was revealed that Apple (s AAPL) 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.

20 Responses to “Apple reveals big solar, fuel cell plans for data center”

  1. John Wagner

    “It also has some of the cheapest power, which is likely why Apple decided to build its data center there.”

    If Apple was after cheap power, they would have stayed as far away from PV solar as possible. PV solar is absolutely, by far THE most expensive form of electricity generation.

    • John,
      If your comment on the cost of solar was meant in the abstract, please don’t forget that as a country, we’re heavily subsidizing oil and coal industries (example: $80 billion each year in oil exploration tax breaks, just at the federal level). And if you factor-in the environmental (pollution) costs and public health costs that the oil and coal industries are not being charged for, solar and wind are a huge bargain.
      In the specific, for an organization looking at concrete energy options, solar is already cost-effective in many areas, especially where incentives are offered to level the playing field (wrt oil and coal subsidies), or where time-of-use metering is used, etc. Many organizations see an ROI on solar of 4-5 years. If you combine that with solar’s energy cost escalation protection, the effective ROI gets closer to what organizations are looking for.
      Compared to developing countries that are now building their infrastructure, the US has the disadvantage of having a large legacy infrastructure, so we can’t just scrap all power sources overnight and start over. But when a company builds a new data center, it’s refreshing to see that their decision makers are coming to the same conclusions that China and others are coming to: we’d be crazy to stubbornly stick to medieval energy sources.

  2. 20MW is nameplate only. With a claimed 24% capacity factor (calculated from their annual Kw-hr projection) this will result in more like 5MW overall. And if they actually achieve this, especially in a non-desert climate, they will be defying physics. But it’s really more about the accountants than the physicists

    So how much did the federal, state, and local taxpayers unwittingly kick in? This looks like yet another solar project designed more to harvest government subsidies than Carolina sunbeams.

    And 31% nuclear is “dirty”? On the contrary. That’s why France has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per GW produced than any other country in Europe, including the solar-infatuated Germans.

    • Exactly! In that area they would be lucky to achieve a 10% capacity factor. At that capacity factor they would generate only 17.5 million kW-hrs. Assuming $0.12 per kW-hr they will make roughly $2 million worth of electricity per year. Given that PVs only last a maximum of 30 years, and require a maintenance staff, this installation will NEVER break even. This will be a cost sinkhole for Apple

      • PV system ratings (i.e. 20MW) already factor the sunlight to electricity conversion efficiency. At 4.9 hours of full sun per day in Charlotte NC (yearly average), with realistic losses, production will be about 83MWh, not 17.5. Yearly production at $0.12 would be about $10 million. With incentives and accelerated depreciation, Apple’s ROI can still be near 5 years. So they’re not exactly throwing money out the window to be green here.

      • John Wagner

        Capacity factor has nothing to do with sunlight to electricity conversion efficiency. The rated power output of the panels already takes that into account. In the realm of PVs, capacity factor (assuming ideal panels, in ideal conditions) is a direct and exclusive function of sunlight hours per day. At the 4.9 hours of sun per day:
        4.9hrs/24hrs =~20% capacity factor.
        That figure is the ideal capacity factor for the location of these panels. Once you factor in the power conversion efficiency degradation of the panels over time, and other imperfections in the real world, the realistic lifetime capacity factor of the panels is around 10-12%.

        You can calculate the average yearly yield of this installation as follows;
        20,000 kW (capacity) * 24 hrs * 365 days * 0.12 (capacity factor) =~ 21 million kW-hrs of yearly electricity production.

        Again, capacity factor has NOTHING to do with electricity conversion efficiency, only sunlight hours per day, assuming all other conditions are ideal (not possible).

        Finally, you seem to be confused about orders of magnitude. The 83MWh you posted is only about $4,000 in electricity per year.
        I said that the yearly production would be 17.5 million kWh, or 17,500MWh.
        Please, in the future try to be more precise.

    • I don’t see why you would want to concentrate your data centers in zone 4 earthquake zone. California and most of Oregon are zone 4 while North Carolina is seismically a zone 1, maybe zone 2 A which makes it pretty inactive. Companies use a variety of factors to locate critical data centers including cost and stability of power (remember data centers are huge power users), number of fiber providers for redundancy, risk (stay away from earthquake zones where possible, build out of flood planes or elevate to worst case scenarios), latency if its an issue and yes tax breaks.

  3. Doug King

    So this article left me with a few questions.

    What is the source for this biogas (mostly methane)? Do they pipe it in? Is there a sewage treatment plant or a cow farm near by?

    How much power is this data center expected to use? Is the amount of power Apple plans to generate with renewable energy a significant fraction of the data center’s power needs?

    • Nope, prefer not to speculate at this pt until more info comes out. Not saying you weren’t transparent about your statements, just concerned that they will be taken out of context and sucked into the Interweb rumor-generation machine. Thanks for the post and banter!

  4. Katie, Why the semi-random “guess” on who the solar suppliers/developers “could” be? Are you basing it on sourced info? There are dozens of other firms aside from First Solar and SunPower that can develop and build a 20MW PV field. There are enough rumors out there without starting another one, doncha think?