SunPower scores deal for Apple’s huge solar farm


Credit: Gigaom

Apple plans to buy solar panels from SunPower(s SPWRA) for the huge solar farm that it’s planning to build at its data center in Maiden, North Carolina, according to San Jose Mercury News reporter Dana Hull, who cites a regulatory filing with North Carolina’s utility commission. Last month Apple revealed that it plans to construct a 20 MW solar farm, and a 5 MW fuel-cell farm, at its data center, which would be some of the largest company-owned solar and fuel cell installations in the country when built.

While the filing doesn’t have all that much detail, Hull notes that it says Apple’s solar farm could start delivering solar power starting in October and will use SunPower’s E20 435-watt ground-mounted photovoltaic panels, with single-axis tracking systems. Both Apple and SunPower aren’t commenting on the deal. I speculated last month that Apple’s solar deal could go to SunPower (or First Solar).

Last week I reported that it looks like fuel-cell maker Bloom Energy is the supplier behind Apple’s 5 MW fuel-cell farm. I heard that from a couple of sources, and it also makes sense in terms of the size of the deal, and the fact that Apple’s fuel cells will be run on biogas, which Bloom has a long history of supplying. Neither Apple nor Bloom Energy would comment on any deal.

If both Bloom Energy and SunPower are the vendors behind Apple’s clean power push at its data center, then two Bay Area companies will be leading the high profile and pioneering plan. Both Bloom Energy and SunPower are venture-backed Valley startups, though SunPower is now a public company and was bought by oil giant Total. Perhaps this is proof that greentech innovation is alive and well in the Valley, though it takes more than a decade to make a dent in the energy market.

Apple, and other Internet companies like Google(s GOOG) and Facebook, have chosen to build large data centers in North Carolina to power their always-on services, and Apple will partly run its iCloud service from the North Carolina data center. Part of the reason why North Carolina is turning into a hub for data centers is that power is cheap there, and pretty dirty, because most of it comes from coal. To help with that PR and environmental problem, Apple is looking to source a portion of its power from its own distributed renewable energy.

Greenpeace says that Apple’s North Carolina data center could consume 100 MW, and Apple’s clean-power plan is for 25 MW (or 25 percent). But because the sun doesn’t shine 24/7, Greenpeace notes that the real capacity of the clean power could be 10 percent.



I think this is a great step for Apple. This ties in with their corporate social responsibility. It is a great first step for this corporation. They tend to give off the vibe that they are green… but I see this as their first initiative for doing something better for the environment. I am curious as to why they are getting energy from N. Carolina? Like Xiao Bai said, is it cheaper there? Again, for a large corporation, people like to feel good about a company and I think this was a smart move for Apple!


North Carolina

Select Economic and Energy Data† Value State Rank
Real Gross Domestic Product, per capita $35,719 25th highest
Unemployment 11.2% 9th highest
Gasoline Price, per gallon $2.76 24th lowest
Electricity Price, per kWh 8.43¢ 23rd lowest
North Carolina has below average electricity prices, 15 percent below the national average. More than 55 percent of North Carolina’s electricity is generated from coal, which is primarily shipped to the state from West Virginia and Kentucky. Nuclear power from three nuclear plants provides over 34 percent of North Carolina’s electricity generation, and most of the rest of North Carolina’s electricity is generated from natural gas that is shipped into the state from the Gulf Coast and hydroelectric from several of the state’s rivers.

Regulatory Impediments to Affordable Energy

Although affordable energy is a vital component of a healthy economy, regulations frequently increase energy costs. Regulations imposed in the name of reducing carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions are especially costly. Carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of the combustion of all carbon-containing fuels, such as natural gas, petroleum, coal, wood, and other organic materials. Today, there is no cost-effective way to capture the carbon dioxide output of the combustion of these fuels, so any regulations that limit carbon dioxide emissions will either limit the use of natural gas, petroleum, and coal, or dramatically increase their prices.

Below are some facts about North Carolina’s regulatory environment that are likely to affect the cost of energy or the cost of using energy. North Carolina has thus far avoided many of the costly energy policies other states are implementing.

North Carolina:

North Carolina does not cap greenhouse gas emissions.
North Carolina is not a member of a regional agreement to cap greenhouse gas emissions.
North Carolina requires utilities to generate from renewable sources a certain percent of the electricity they sell. The state’s renewable portfolio standard requires investor-owned utilities to generate 12.5 of 2020 retail electricity sales from renewables by 2021, while municipal utilities and cooperatives must meet a target of 10 percent of renewable by 2018. Up to 25 percent of the requirement may be met through energy efficiency technologies, including combined heat and power systems powered by non-renewable fuels. After 2021, up to 40 percent of the standard may be met through energy efficiency.  The overall target for renewable energy includes technology-specific targets of 0.2 percent solar by 2018, 0.2 percent energy recovery from swine waste by 2018, and 900,000 megawatt-hours of electricity derived from poultry waste by 2014.[i]
North Carolina does not require gasoline to be mixed with renewable fuels.
North Carolina does not impose automobile fuel economy standards similar to California’s, which include attempts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new vehicles.
North Carolina requires new residential and commercial buildings to meet energy efficiency standards. Residential and commercial buildings must meet the 2009 North Carolina Energy Conservation Code, which is based on the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) and ASHRAE 90.1-2004.[ii] The IECC (developed by the International Code Council) and ASHRAE 90.1 (developed by the American Society of Heating and Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers) are model codes that mandate certain energy efficiency standards. State buildings must meet a variety of standards intended to decrease energy and water use.[iii]
North Carolina does not impose state-based appliance efficiency standards. However, new office equipment and appliances purchased by state agencies must be Energy Star certified.[iv]
North Carolina does not allow utilities to “decouple” revenue from the sale of electricity and natural gas. Some states decouple revenue from actual sales, allowing utilities to increase their revenue by selling less electricity and natural gas.
† Data Sources: Real GDP per capita 2008: Bureau of Economic Analysis, News Release: GDP by State (June 2, 2009), state/gsp_newsrelease.htm; Unemployment: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Regional and State Employment and Unemployment–February 2010 (Mar. 10, 2010); Gasoline Prices: American Automobile Association, AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report (Mar. 30, 2010); Electricity Prices: Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly, Table 5.6.B., Average Retail Price of Electricity,  (March 15, 2010),; Electricity Generation Data: Energy Information Administration, Electricity Generation 2009,
[i] Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Renewables Portfolio Standards in the United States,

[ii] Building Codes Assistance Project, Code Status: North Carolina,

[iii] Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, North Carolina, Conservation of Energy and Water Use in State Buildings,

[iv]North Carolina General Statutes § 143-64.10 et seq.,

Katie Fehrenbacher

@Xiao Bai, I havent crunched the math, but I think it probably costs less in terms of energy prices to build a data center in an area with cheaper dirty power and build a 20 MW solar and 5 MW fuel cell farm, than to build a data center in an area with reoccurring more expensive clean power. @greenpeace, will you do this math for us?

Xiao Bai

I wonder if power is drastically cheaper in North Carolina than in other areas of the US. Because if these companies are starting to focus more on energy conservation, why not establish their data centers in areas with wind farms and more sun? Perhaps a cost-benefit analysis should be done to examine how much money a company would save if it were to go green in this regard with public relations factored into the equation. On the whole though, I’d say that this is still a great step in the right path for Apple. As solar power efficiencies goes up, I feel that more and more people will start to expect this exact move from America’s companies. Excellent article, thanks for sharing!

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