Apple now powering its cloud with solar panels, fuel cells (photos)

Apple's solar farm in North Carolina. Image courtesy of Apple.

Apple has turned on the first halves of both its massive solar panel farm and adjacent fuel cell farm, and is using the systems to provide power for its $1 billion, 500,000 square-foot data center in Maiden, North Carolina. The clean power projects are some of the largest non-utility owned systems in the world, and they’re part of Apple’s plan to use 100 percent clean power for its data centers. Apple revealed the information in a new environmental report on Thursday.

Bloom Energy

The Maiden data center was built partly to power its iCloud services and is part of Apple’s overall plan to increasingly provide music, media and other applications from its cloud computing infrastructure. So think about it this way — when you backup your new Rihanna album, the servers that are powering it could (probably indirectly) be using fuel cell or solar power.

The fuel cell farm (pictured above) was developed by Silicon Valley startup Bloom Energy, and the live system is currently at 4.8 MW. Apple has decided to double the size of the fuel cell farm and will be installing more fuel cells shortly to make the farm 10 MW. An Apple spokesperson tells me that those new fuel cells will be live very soon.

Apple Solar Farm

Apple’s live 20 MW solar farm uses solar panels from San Jose’s SunPower. Apple has also decided to double the size of the solar panel farm and is building another 20 MW solar panel farm next to this current one. Apple says in its new environmental report that its second solar farm will be completed by the end of the calendar year, and when that is finished and live Apple will have an installed annual capacity of 167 million kWh from local Apple-owned clean power projects.

Apple Solar Farm

Apple is producing enough clean power at the Maiden facility to provide 60 percent of the total energy for the data center. Remember it’s a big facility and servers are energy hogs (even if Apple’s facility is very energy efficient). Apple gets the rest of the power from the local grid, where Duke is the utility. While North Carolina largely gets its power from coal and nuclear, Apple is buying renewable energy credits to offset the rest of the grid-power used.

Apple is using this combination of direct clean power generation, buying clean power from providers and buying renewable energy credits to reach 100 percent clean power for all of its data centers. Apple is building large data centers in Prineville, Oregon and Reno, Nevada and is using this approach in those locations, too.

Apple says in its new report across all of its buildings — both data centers and corporate offices — 75 percent of its energy usage comes from clean power. That’s up from 35 percent in 2010.

Clean energy generation on the scale that Apple is doing for its data center is new, so the infrastructure is a mix of some complex and sometimes indirect methods. State incentives and laws are also different in each state, so that changes the strategy per state. For example, in California Apple can buy clean power through a program called Direct Access, but in North Carolina Apple decided building actual power plants was a better option.

In Maiden, Apple is selling the power from the fuel cells to the local utility, so it won’t necessarily be using the fuel cell energy onsite to power the data center. The fuel cells will use biogas, and Apple can earn money by selling the power and associated Renewable Energy Credits to Duke. The biogas used will come from landfills, and will be “directed biogas” which means it will be injected into natural gas pipelines and not used directly in the actual fuel cells at the site.

Check out my previous series on this data center:

Here’s some more background reading on these projects:

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