Notes on Apple's Clean Energy Push in North Carolina

There’s been a lot of press about Apple’s major solar and fuel cell installation at its new data center in Malden, North Carolina. So far I haven’t seen direct statements from Apple staff - all of the data seems to be based on an Apple document titled “Facilities Report: 2012 Environmental Update”.

Here are some of my thoughts on the project:

  • I’m excited about this project and Apple’s leadership. The main thing clean energy companies need is customers, and this provides a boost to a couple of them. Hopefully it will get some other companies to think more strategically about their energy (more on this below).
  • I got a chuckle out of everyone picking up on the following phrase from Apple’s document: “..will be the largest non-utility fuel cell installation…". Apple is increasing becoming a compute utility, and if you’re a compute utility then you’re also in the energy business. Like Google, Amazon and Microsoft, Apple surely now has world-class staff on electricity generation and energy efficiency.
  • I always warn that no “green” project is “free green”, and its true here also, where 100+ acres of forest are no longer.
  • Reading the articles you’re left with the impression that clean energy is running the whole site, but I seriously doubt it. A quick back-of-the-envelope estimate suggests that the site is running at 100MW (200 to 400 watts per square foot, 250,000 to 500,000 of usable datacenter space), which others believe as well. That leads to 800M kwh/year, or 10X the annual capacity of the solar panels and fuel cells combined. (As with the note above this isn’t meant to ‘dis’ the project, but these are the likely facts).
  • If you had any preconceptions that LEED ratings told you anything about the energy usage of a building, hopefully this will dissuade you of that fantasy.
  • The solar facility is interesting, but I’m more intrigued by the fuel cells. They are very efficient, generate some useful heat (well, not useful here since they have enough already, but useful in many situations), and can run on a wide range of fuels, including biofuels (like Apple) and natural gas, both of which are better solutions than the predominately coal-based electricity in North Carolina. Barring a discontinuity in solar panel efficiency per square foot, I’d be that Apple will scale up the fuel cells farther in the future.
  • So why’d Apple do it? I doubt the project pays for itself by straightforward accounting, at least until well into the future. The PR side is a benefit, but it’s not Apple’s style, and least not enough to justify the project. My guess is that its about energy independence, and not wanting to be too reliant on one source. With this investment Apple can survive a major big power outage for at least 10% of the facility, and has bargaining power for Duke and other electricity providers. They’re also gaining experience running their own utility, and my bet is they’ll build on this initial footprint.

The electric utilities are one of the least innovative segments of the US economy, and their operating and financial future are tightly coupled to a fickle US energy policy. Do you think someone as thorough and innovative as Apple would leave their future in the hands of such an industry?