Behind Apple’s new cloud, there’s sunlight.
Apple’s massive new data center in Maiden, North Carolina drives the company’s sparkling new iCloud service, and according to a report from the Charlotte Observer, sunlight will provide some of the considerable power needed to run the facility.
The company is building a solar power plant across the street from the data center, the newspaper said, citing county permits that allow the company to regrade 171 acres in preparation for building a solar farm.
Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment. But the investment in renewable energy clearly marks a shift for the company, which has taken heat from environmental groups for its energy practices. The company has lagged behind other cloud players, most notably Google, in going green. The solar farm “is one of [Apple's] first big forays into clean energy, in terms of ownership at least,” said MJ Shiao, a solar market analyst at GTM Research.
Greenpeace singled out the new Apple data center in its report How Dirty Is Your Data? The report, released in April, draws attention to the environmental damage attributable to the cloud. Apple and other major cloud players have been lured to North Carolina by the promise of cheap electricity. Unfortunately, the electricity is cheap because it comes from coal. North Carolina has some of the dirtiest electricity in the country.
Apple’s less-than-stellar environmental record raises the possibility that the solar plant is part of a greenwashing campaign aimed at blunting criticism from the environmental movement. But the size of the lot Apple has been permitted to make over hints at a substantial renewable energy installation. If Apple develops the whole site, the solar farm could generate 25 to 35 megawatts of power, depending on the solar technology used, said Shiao.
Estimates for the data center’s energy needs range from a preconstruction figure of 20 megawatts reported by the Charlotte Observer in 2009 to Greenpeace’s estimate of 100 megawatts. If Apple is willing to spend the money — Shiao estimates that developing the full site would cost $75 to $100 million — it could supply a sizable portion of the data center’s energy with solar power.
Tax incentives may also make the project more palatable for Apple. The company could receive a federal tax credit of 30%, according to Shiao. If Apple begins construction before the end of the year, they would be eligible to receive the tax credit in the form of a cash rebate, he said.
Even with the tax incentives, electricity from the solar farm would be more expensive than the mostly coal-based energy from the region’s grid — at least at today’s prices. Another advantage of installing a solar power plant is predictability and a hedge against price shocks. If Apple builds the solar farm, it’ll have a good idea of how much its electricity is going to cost for the next 20 years. And if carbon pricing ever enters the scene in the form of cap-and-trade or a carbon tax (admittedly unlikely for the foreseeable future), Apple would be buffered from the potential spike in the price of coal-based electricity.
Apple’s apparent decision to build a solar farm stands in contrast to Google’s latest strategy for greening its data center operations. Google has been signing power purchase agreements — long-term contracts for buying electricity — with companies developing renewable energy plants. Google aims to offset the dirty electricity used in its data centers by buying clean energy elsewhere on the grid.
Google’s purchases provide financing for companies to build new renewable energy plants, which helps green the grid as a whole, according to a report. Google released in April on its power purchase agreements. Google’s report also takes a swipe at companies that make a show of putting solar panels on their roofs: “By focusing on the impact of our actions instead of the optics, we are making a greater contribution to reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increased green power production.”
Perhaps Apple will soon puts itself in a position to talk some trash of its own.