A closer look at Apple’s renewable power plant in North Carolina

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After building large solar power and biogas fuel cell production facilities at its Maiden, NC data center, Apple is one of the world’s largest non-utility clean power companies from the country. According to a report released earlier this year, Apple uses 100% renewable energy in all of its data centers, plus 75% in its corporate facilities.

Gigaomby Katie Fehrenbacher went to the establishment and wrote a detailed article with a number of images of Apple’s two gigantic solar farms, as well as its Bloom Energy biogas fuel cell farm. In total, Apple generates around 50 megawatts at peak efficiency – 40 MW in two solar farms, plus an additional 10 MW in fuel cells.

With Apple’s data center consuming around 40 MW of electricity, during peak power generation, the company becomes a net producer of electricity for local utility Duke Energy. Apple appears to be the only major internet company to have its own power generation facilities like these.

Apple’s solar panel farms were built and are operated by the Bay Area SunPower Company. SunPower manufactures high efficiency solar panels, solar panel trackers and also develops solar panel projects like Apple’s. The solar farm across from the data center has more than 50,000 panels on 100 acres, and it took about a year to build the whole thing.

Each solar panel from Apple Farms has a microcontroller on the back, and the panels are attached to long, tall trackers (the steel poles pictured). During the day, computers automatically and gradually tilt the solar panels so that the face of the panels follows the sun throughout the day. The photo above was taken in the late morning, so by the end of the day the panels will have completely rotated to face where I was standing. The tracers used are single axis trackerswhich basically means they are less complex and less expensive than more precise dual axis trackers.

Apple is working with a company that provides sheep with grass under solar panels, an environmentally friendly alternative to shearing.

For its fuel cell installation, Apple uses biogas fuel cells manufactured by Bloom Energy. Biogas is an alternative to natural gas that can be captured from decaying organic matter like landfills, water treatment facilities, and farms. Natural gas is significantly cheaper, but it is a non-renewable fossil fuel.

Biogas fuel cells

When I was walking outside the fuel cell facility, I also could see a few people doing maintenance work on some of the fuel cells. I’m not sure what exactly they were doing, but fuel cells need a certain level of maintenance to keep them fueled, as well as to replace moving parts like fans. Every few years, they also have to have a key part called the cell, which can result in high maintenance costs for the fuel cell operator.

Gigaom To much more about the installation in his article, and examines what a number of other clean energy tech companies are doing as well.

Renewable energy is a hot topic right now, with some outside observers like Greenpeace pushing large internet companies to embrace clean power for their data centers, which consume about 2% of the total electricity produced in the United States each year. Apple has worked hard in recent years to improve its public image environment, and recently hired former EPA chief Lisa Jackson to lead the company’s environmental and sustainability efforts.


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