5 reasons why Apple is embracing clean power for its data center

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Seemingly all of a sudden Apple is charging ahead with one of the most aggressive clean power projects for a data center in the U.S. Apple is planning on building a 20 MW solar farm and a 5 MW fuel cell farm at its massive data center in Maiden, North Carolina. Now the real question is why?

I’ve been thinking about the logistics of combining data centers and clean power over the past few years, and here’s 5 reasons why I think Apple is embracing clean power right now:

1). Solar is cheap as heck: Prices of solar panels and cells have plummeted recently, leading to a drop of around 50 percent in prices over the past year. That’s bad news for the solar manufacturers — and has led to a wave of solar maker bankruptcies — but that’s good news for companies, utilities and home owners that are buying solar panels. It’s one of the best times in history to buy solar panels. Particularly when a company like Apple is buying such a sizable quantity (20 MW), they can get an even better deal. A 20 MW solar project planned to be built in Florida this year cost about $70 million — Apple’s spending about $1 billion on the entire data center.

2). Dirty Internet power is bad PR: Greenpeace was one of the first companies to take a close look at the massive data centers being built by Apple, Facebook and Google in North Carolina and the watchdog pointed out that North Carolina has one of the dirtiest power grids in the U.S. — it’s mostly coal (61 percent) and nuclear (30.8 percent). These Internet companies no doubt were attracted to the region because this dirty power is also pretty cheap, at about 4 to 5 cents a kilowatt hour, according to Greenpeace.

But with a growing amount of attention on how dirty this energy mix is, the Internet firms are under greater pressure to bring in their own clean power. In Greenpeace’s report last year it gave Apple a straight “F” for infrastructure siting of its data center, a “C” for transparency, and a “C” for mitigation strategy. Now Apple, like Google and Facebook, have been pushing a lot harder to get low cost clean power into the data center discussion.

3). Control over energy: When Internet companies take a more active role in building energy generation sources like solar and fuel cell farms, they are not only reducing the carbon footprint of their data centers, they are getting more control over a crucial resource that their data centers need. Data centers are major power hogs. And owning the energy source, helps a company like Apple shield at least part of its data center power from potentially rising energy costs.

4). The 100 MW data center: As the size — and power consumption — of data centers rise to the size of Apple’s in Maiden, which will reportedly have a capacity for 100 MW, rural areas and small towns just might not have enough local power generation to fill the need. I’m not sure if that’s the case for Apple in Maiden, but Apple is Facebook Data Centerplanning on adding a sizable 25 MW of its own clean power, which could be a quarter of its power needs. Maiden might not have had the necessary power resources.

5). Fuel cell makers targeting data centers: Fuel cell makers like Bloom Energy, FuelCell Energy, and ClearEdge Power are targeting data center operators with their on site cleaner power sources. AT&T plans to install 75 Bloom fuel cells at 11 of its offices in California and AT&T said it will use the fuel cell power for data centers as well as administration offices and facilities that house network equipment. The U.S. division of Japanese telecom giant NTT, NTT America, said that it plans to install five fuel cells from Bloom Energy at one of its data-center facilities in San Jose, Calif. ClearEdge Power launched a fuel cell line targeted at data-center operators last year.

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