Apple Makes Its Maiden Data Centre 100 Percent Renewable

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Greenpeace! Apple announces second solar array

Apple has announced that its data centre in Maiden, North Carolina will be powered entirely by renewable energy thanks to a second planned solar array, just days after Greenpeace protested at Apple headquarters over the firm’s use of coal and nuclear-powered electricity at the site.

By the end of 2012, Apple will generate 60 percent of the energy needed by its North Carolina data centre on the site itself, using a combination of fuel cells and solar power – adding a second array alongside one which is already set to be the largest in the US. The rest will be electricity from renewable sources, bought from local providers, Apple has said.

Greenpeace has welcomed the announcement but said it will be watching out for more details, and keeping the pressure on future data centre developments

Two big solar arrays

The announcement may surprise some people, as without a second array, the figures would not have quite stacked up.

Previous estimates put Apple’s electricity use far higher than the 20MW Apple claims its site uses at full capacity – and far higher than what could be provided by the renewable sources on the site. Greenpeace estimated the site used around 100MW of electricity, and rival Amazon believed it must use about 78MW.

Apple is building America’s largest solar farm on the site, as well as the largest fuel cell operation outside of a utility. These would still have fallen short of delivering anything like 100MW or even 78MW.

In fact, says Apple, the site uses only 20MW at full capacity, a figure which suggests the data centre may be lightly populated – or else contain some design features that lead to lower power use than experts would expect for a centre of its size.

What is known, is that the data centre has LEED Platinum certification for energy efficiency, and includes features such using outside air for cooling 75 percent of the time, and using a system that chills water in advance, shifting energy use to off-peak hours.

Apple's Data Centre - Renewable energyThe solar power is provided by two arrays of solar cells, each of which is rated at 20MW peak power production. In fact because of night-time, clouds, and the seasonal variation of sunlight, average production will be considerably less, but Apple has taken this into account.

Apple says each array will produce 42GWh of electrical energy per year, which works out at an average production of about 4.8MW – not too far off the 3.5MW figure which Amazon used in its critique. It also adds up to nearly half the energy Apple says it needs.

The fuel cells – powered by methane – will add another 5MW (25 percent of the energy required), so on the face of it Apple seems to have enough renewable power to comfortably provide 60 percent of its needs.

Buying the rest in is not an admission of failure, according to the release, but “encourages local investment in renewable projects such as wind, solar, and bio-gas power in locations best suited for these resources”. This includes working with NC Greenpower, which makes electricity from methane generated at a landfill site, only three miles from Maiden.

Apple will register its renewable energy production with the North Carolina Renewable Energy Tracking System (NC-RETS), established by the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

Apple’s data centre in Newark will be 100 percent powered by renewable energy by February 2013, and a planned data centre in Prineville, Oregon will be 100 percent renewable from the time it opens. Apple also uses 100 percent renewable energy at operations centres and headquarters in Austin, Texas,  Sacramento, California, Cork, Ireland, and Munich, Germany. Its Cupertino headquarters gets half its power from renewable sources, including on-site Bloom boxes.

Greenpeace welcomed the announcement: “Apple’s announcement today is a great sign that Apple is taking seriously the hundreds of thousands of its customers who have asked for an iCloud powered by clean energy, not dirty coal,” said Greenpeace International senior IT analyst Gary Cook.  “Apple’s doubling of its solar capacity and investment in local renewable energy are key steps to creating a cleaner iCloud.”

However, he still wants more detail: “Greenpeace and Apple’s customers look forward to hearing more detail about how Apple plans to fulfill its commitment to renewable energy for its North Carolina and Oregon data centers. Apple is still one of Duke Energy’s largest customers, and will have to demand Duke provide the clean energy it needs to legitimately claim the iCloud is 100% powered by renewable energy.”

Greenpeace promised to continue to campaign to make sure that as data centres owned by Apple and others grow, they remain on clean energy.

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