Behold Apple’s massive solar farm from the sky [photos]


I did an interview with North Carolina’s TV Station WCNC-TV this morning about the data center cluster in their state. After the interview they kindly sent me these aerial video stills that they took from a plane above Apple’s solar farm, next to its data center in the city of Maiden.

As you can see, the solar panel farm is getting close to completion — this is what it looked like in early August when Wired commissioned those aerial photos. There’s a lot more panels installed on the field now. When done this first solar farm will stretch across 100 acres and generate 20 MW. Apple is also building another 20 MW solar farm near by.

The solar panels and trackers come from California’s SunPower (s SPRWA). SunPower makes higher efficiency solar panels, which are placed on trackers that follow the sun throughout the day.

Images courtesy of WCNC-TV.



Solar panels are in my opinion better than convetional systems to gain power. But the size and scale of this powerplant is really big with an enormous impact on the environment. Maybe to big…


Those calculations are grossly optimistic. According to a project I was involved with at Sandia Laboratories, to supply all the electricity needed in the USA solar panels would need to cover 7% of the land in the USA. And that assumed the sun availability of New Mexico. Obviously Maine, N. Dakota, etc would not get as much sunlight.


Question to the knowledgable.
Why arent Rural roads and Highways used for Solar Farms ?

Yun Chen

when It comes to real jobs, China cannot do it like American do. I am Chinese. Quality Issues and Durability. It is ironic that Chinese consumers prefer buying American products over Chinese from daily base products to clothes and shoes. But when they visit America, and finding out what they buying is made in China.


Much better to dynamite the tops off mountains to mine for high mercury coal and inject toxic chemicals into the water supply to hydro frack for natural gas. Fossil fuels are the way of te future.

Bandwidth Bandito

I guess none of the naysayers here has seen an open cut coal mine and associated power stations? Solar has its environmental cost (nothing is free) but it’s nothing compared to the complete and utter destruction that is the result of mining for coal. We need power to sustain our current lifestyles, solar will allow us to continue to live in comfort with a lesser footprint (but not with no footprint at all).


Michael, the bunnies and squirrels are happy to be able to sit in the shard!

Peter Wilson

Wow, this hammers home just how expensive solar power is in terms of the surface if the earth.

I’m sorry, I just don’t see how coating huge areas of the planet with these things is ecologically friendly . How is this more attractive than a coal mine?

Stefan Weiss

Great Comment Mark. Yes I can’t believe that anti-solar people are still grasping at straws.


The energy required to make and install a solar panel, including the energy-intensive process of growing the silicon boule the chips are made from is paid back in less than a year of operation.

The system on my roof supplied over 16,000 kWh (AC) last year. On hot sunny days in July, the AC for my 3,400 sq ft house funs full tilt and my meter *still* runs backwards. We overproduced 3,000 kWh for the year, so my electric bill is not zero – it’s negative! I’m thinking of getting a Nissan Leaf to replace our minivan. My excess electric would give me almost 9,000 free miles, with no oil changes, no transmission fluid, no timing belts, no spark plugs, zero emissions, no greenhouse gas, no nitrogen oxides, no toxic coal fly ash etc.. And for the other 6,000 miles we put on our car every year, the cost is maybe 1/4 the cost of gas at $3.50 a gallon even though we live in a state with the third highest electric rates in the nation.

And my solar system will be paid off in a maximum of 11 years. The panels are guaranteed for 80% output at 25 years. Everyone on the street where I live could do the same, but only one has. Why? Because most folks don’t see the economic sense of dropping $40 or $50K upfront for a system that mints money and helps the environment. In other words, most folks are, sadly, short sighted.

Stefan Weiss

Most solar companies in California will actually install it for free and have the customer pay the electric bill to them. After the ROI, they make the money.


Only matter of time for us to build Dyson’s Sphere to harness the solar and thermal for clean energy.

Lynne Gregg

Apple has long had a huge commitment to solar energy and has a pretty impressive patent portfolio including solar. Looking forward to seeing some of that technology rolling out in new products.


Note the cloud shadows- the weakness of solar power. That and half of the day is DARK. It’s a shame that solar power is a favorite of the politically correct crowd. It’s a loser technology- self limited and horribly inefficient. Geothermal power is the correct answer. It’s just not the bet of Hollywood billionaires and their stodge politicians.

Lynne Gregg

I’m pretty hopeful on solar. While I might not  be ready to hop into a solar-powered car, there are some devices that can be adequately powered by solar cells:  my garden lights, for instance.   Even on dark Seattle winter days, my solar garden lights are generating light at night.  This is just one, small application for solar.
Here’s another interesting application of solar technology and the designers are proving it out by flying the plane around the world.  Check it out at 

Peter Valiant

I find some of these comments downright depressing in their borderline idiocy.

@Laughing_Boy48: I can assure you, soiling is taken into account when considering system performance and lifetime energy production. All of this is modeled out to 25 years. Only extremely high soiling environments require active cleaning (i.e., beyond waiting for the rain to clean them off).

@Aldo Laghi: I’m sorry it doesn’t please you aesthetically, but I fail to see what this has to do with political correctness. Companies purchase PV systems like this one for economic/business reasons, and expect a reasonable ROI. If this was just “PC” driven, you simply wouldn’t see these types of projects.

@Michael W. Perry: “It is interesting that a lot of solutions popular with environmentalists–solar farms, wind turbines, and schemes to harvest energy from the tides or waves–mess with Mother Nature far more than conventional solutions.” Uh yeah, you’re gonna need to back that statement up with a piece of evidence or two, buddy. While habitat disruption can be an issue with large scale PV, every project is required to provide and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In cases where there are legitimate concerns about about habitat (e.g., endemic species, migrations paths, breeding grounds, etc.) the project is altered.
See this for an example EIS: (PDF)
See this for an example of how issues noted in an EIS affect final project design:

nadim khatib

Totally agree with Peter.
I realised whatever one does some people always are there to crticise (almost like a habit), I guess they can conserve there own energy by keeping their trap shut.


Man, that’s quite a few solar panels to keep clean. I sure hope it isn’t in the path of any seasonally migrating birds.

Julie Haugh

Provided the farm receives a regular rain storm, the panels should keep themselves clean fairly well. Google conducted a study on their arrays at the Googleplex and found that regular rain storms keep most arrays clean, except when the angle of inclination isn’t sufficient to allow proper runoff.


Julie, sounds good but is not exactly correct. Considable production can be lost (over 8% per year) depending on the climate in between rains since it takes .8 inch downpours to effectively wash a module. A much larger study by Powerlight ( a predecessor of Sunlight) performed in 2005 documents this experience on some 250 locations all across different settings in CA. Mono crystalline and poly crystalline are especially vulnerable to significant loss if bird soiling occurs due to thei serial circuit design and string derating. There is a rather robust module cleaning industry already serving utility scale solar farms to economically address this need.


cannot tell if you are being sarcastic or not….

I do like the “look” of the old battersea power station in London (as a Pink Floyd fan it is almost mandatory).

However I do not feel the same kinship with the local coal plant at Port Neal (NW Iowa). It is much more of an eyesore than all of the wind turbines out in the fields I drive thru my way across the state.

Those farmers out there get PAID for those turbines (yea, I know we’re talking solar), with long term leases and a quantifiable return on their investment (their land). It is difficult to see how this can be seen as a disadvantage.


Are you saying this is an eyesore compared to a smokestack? Because that is what this replaces.

Further, this data center exists to enable 400 million iOS computers that only require 5% of the power of the Intel computers they replaced, so this data center earned its hunk of the earth.


Why dont we get the idea of placing these solar panels on the building tops? If one can do this on NY manhattan, then just imagine the benefits of it..

Guest Anonymous

Solar farms of this size can NOT be done on building tops. These type facilities are far more industrial than the standard small commercial roof install type.


That is precisely the advantage of solar (and to some extent wind power)…. you can divide up the “farm” and place it in several different places.

I’ve got a single panel, charger/controller, and battery on my toolshed in the backyard. No big loads, just a stereo, laptop, basic power hand tools, etc.

Would cost over $4k to get a line run from the house, thru conduit to get grid power to this shed.

Then I’d have another meter to “lease” from the utility, and a bill (small, but always there, cuz you pay the service fee regardless of whether or not you actually pull juice thru the wires, per my utility).

For less than $1K I’ve got a system that will continue to work for 20+ years with proper maintenance. Only need to swap out the battery every so often (and the lead can be totally reclaimed).

Solar is not the total solution, but it really does seem strange to discount it (even with the subsidies) so quickly…

Julie Haugh

I’m going to agree with Ren on this one. It would be very challenging to put a 20MW farm on the top of commercial buildings, but it is not difficult if we stop viewing asphalt as something that needs to be protected from shade, and building roofs as something that must be exposed to sun or else they’ll die.

I work in the solar industry and whenever I see a roof that doesn’t have an array on it, I see an opportunity. Parking lots, warehouses, office parks — there are countless acres of space, none of which involves depriving Bambi or Thumper of a place to live.

Ed Stoll

Most Solar farms like this will use a “no-mow” variety of grass that typically will not exceed 8″ or so. I believe a blue fescue or the like. Anyway you look at it. Wind and solar are much more complimentary to the environment than a coal fired power plant or a nuclear one when you look at the harvesting of fuel(mountain top removal) and the disposal of spent fuel(what the heck do you do to dispose of fuel rods???? SAFELY!!) The best way to use this power is through distributed generation where every home and business could contribute and dramatically reduce losses due to transmission efforts. This is true of any power source though. The longer you have to move the power the more you are losing to various forms if resistances.


20MW? Is this like one single use Nuclear Reactor that will occupy less space than single house, will last for 20 years and will produce just same amount of waste as its volume (compared to volume of toxic-painted, almost indestructible solar panels…)

Ilja A. Iwas

There’s a difference between toxic and nuclear waste. The later will kill you and most life around from a greater distance and for a far longer period of time.


Even with a small pebble reactor, there is still no viable route for the waste. Reprocessing may help reduce the amount, but that type of infrastructure is larger that the reactors it is intended to serve. Still splitting hairs here (no offense to the bunnies).

Solar panels do take energy to manufacture, just like nearly everything we use these days that isn’t organic. The embodied energy of manufacture is recouped in a few years (think 4-5 of a 25 year lifespan of the panels). The remainder of the warranty period is maintenance (washing the panels periodically, monitoring the cables/etc) and repair after storms (most panels are pretty good at withstanding hail damage, they are designed to be). This maintenance/upkeep, even with decent wages for labor is still much cheaper than 25 years of fuel input purchases…

You’d have to keep purchasing fuel for any other source in that timeframe other than nuclear (which has already been mentioned with other larger problems associated with it).

I live in central Iowa, where daily I see 5-6 100-car long coal trans roll thru from WY to locations east. We all know that the vast majority, if not all, of that coal is heading to a power plant near you.


There is a perfectly viable route for “nuclear waste” (spent fuel). We just don’t do it because the Federal government views it as a “proliferation risk” since it involves separating the various isotopes of Uranium and Plutonium from the spent fuel. Since some of those isotopes — which are already present in the spent fuel — can be used to build nuclear weapons, we don’t do it. That’s the reason, not that it isn’t “viable”.


Furrycatherder, Almost all of the fission process uses up the Plutonium or Uranium,but the main components are typically Strontium-90 and Caesium-137. If they wanted to make fission ready isotopes, they would have another long process of trying to isolate it as well as the various half lives of each isotope most of which is very short or extremely long. For example, if they wanted to use the spent Pu-240, they would have to wait 9000 years


I just visited the ASP plant in Orlando Florida. Manufacturing plant is completely powered by 1.4 MW on the roof using the same panels they make. Solar panels if you didn’t know are almost completely recyclable as well.


No nuclear power ever made money. There is a massive, worldwide publicly-funded infrastructure to police the fuel, and the cost of the waste has been much more than ever anticipated. The cost of meltdowns and other accidents has been much, much more than ever anticipated.

These solar panels are like computer chips in that they will get better and cheaper every generation, and batteries are the same. And the generations are short. So in 20 years, this installation will be producing even more power and storing it more cheaply and using it more efficiently.

This installation scales. They can make twins of these again and again. There aren’t enough nuclear workers to build nuclear powered data centers.

I don’t even see a hint of reason in your comment.


There must be a robot underneath a building in D.C. somewhere making imbecilic comments all over the Internet to mess us up

Michael W. Perry

Oh the horror! Think of all the homeless bunnies and squirrels left to wander about without a home and without a bit of leaf or a little acorn to nibble. Nothing but ugly metal and silicon as far as their little eyes can see.

It is interesting that a lot of solutions popular with environmentalists–solar farms, wind turbines, and schemes to harvest energy from the tides or waves–mess with Mother Nature far more than conventional solutions.


The green color under the panels is either earth-destroying death paint(tm), or grass.

Assuming the latter, we’re talking about 100 acres of grass-covered land.

If that’s an environmental issue, you have singularly high standards on the matter.

How do those standards apply to the CO2 and particle emissions, oil spills and mountain top removals of “conventional” solutions?

Father B

I know that your comment is said in jest. However, bunnies will do just fine in this environment. Just like they do in the grassy patches alongside the runways in Paris Charles DeGaulle Airport. I see them happily running about each landing. I think that the solar panels are high enough off the ground that they won’t bump their cute little heads.


“It is interesting that a lot of solutions popular with environmentalists–solar farms, wind turbines, and schemes to harvest energy from the tides or waves–mess with Mother Nature far more than conventional solutions.”

Far more? Source please.

Solar has it’s issues, it will never be (or is a long, long way off from being) the #1 supplier of our energy due to manufacturing and materials, but it’s a hell of a lot better than mining; mining is all the clearcutting Apple did plus so much more: emissions from trucks and shovels, thousands of tons of overburden lying around, runoff. Permanent destruction, for all intents and purposes. Not to mention the solar will still be producing energy long after the coal would have been burned up.


Solar panels don’t come falling out of the sky – they have to be manufactured. Similar to computer chips, this is a dirty and energy-intensive process. First, raw materials have to be mined: quartz sand for silicon cells, metal ore for thin film cells. Next, these materials have to be treated, following different steps (in the case of silicon cells these are purification, crystallization and wafering). Finally, these upgraded materials have to be manufactured into solar cells, and assembled into modules. All these processes produce air pollution and heavy metal emissions, and they consume energy – which brings about more air pollution, heavy metal emissions and also greenhouse gases.

Lee Conley

This is far worse than an oil spill or black plumes of burning coal. (sarcasm)



As an aside, I would wager this used to be a FARM! I doubt they had to do too much messing with Mother Nature.


It was a farm previous to the panels. I live in the area and know it well. There was no clear cutting here.


As of today, if you look at both Apple’s and Google’s Maps, you’ll see it was mostly forested, some houses, and a bit of farm land maybe.

Regardless, the trade offs, both direct and indirect, are worth it.

William F. Hackett

Then again, think about what acres and acres of genetic monocultures of corn, wheat, etc., that FEED us, but DISPLACE wildlife do to the environment. There are no simple solutions, but solar farms are heck of a lot better than opening up 18,000 MORE acres to fracking for oil and natural gas, as we will soon do in California!


Like coal mines that take the tops off mountains and kill fish for miles downstream, and fracking oil/gas wells that pollute groundwater?


Did you visit the Alberta oil sands recently? Ever heard of something called global warming? Able to think more then 5 seconds into the future? Let me guess, no because you are an American.

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