Apple tills a solar farm to power its data center

Solar panels adorn a rooftop in North Carolina Credit: Source: Ho New / Reuters

The word on the street is that Apple is clearing land next to its new North Carolina data center to harvest solar power.

Several hours up the road from me, there’s a rumor that a solar farm is going to get built, and the word is that the solar farm will be used to power Apple’s data center in southern Catawba County, North Carolina.

According to this article in the Charlotte Observer, permits issued by Catawba County indicate Apple has been approved to reshape the slope of some of the 171 acres of vacant land it owns on Startown Road, opposite its newly opened data center, to prepare for building a solar farm.

Many a news outlets are reporting similar stories, but at this point, Apple’s apparently keeping mum.

Though Apple has not yet used solar energy, it does support sustainable energy efforts, and at its plants in Austin, Texas; Sacramento, Calif.; and Cork, Ireland, Apple relies on renewable energy sources. But Apple doesn’t necessarily get a gold (or should that be green?) star for its green efforts. According to this article on Wired.com, Apple has been criticized for its energy practices. In fact, Greenpeace singled out the new North Carolina data center, which was first announced in July 2009 and opened this spring, in its report “How Dirty Is Your Data?”. The $1 billion data center will support iTunes, MobileMe and Apple's new iCloud. Greenpeace’s report, released in April points out environmental damages that are caused by cloud computing.

By the way, the Wired.com article also notes that Apple and others are drawn to North Carolina “by the promise of cheap electricity;” electricity that is also dirty because it comes from coal. And yep, my home state has some of the dirtiest electricity in the country. Duke Energy, which supplies electricity to Apple in Catawba County, is predominantly powered by coal and nuclear plants.

Local Catawba County residents may not be too happy about Apple’s efforts either, according to the Charlotte Observer article. Apparently, they’ve complained about the smoke from the site that’s created as land is cleared.

The article goes on to say that engineering plans show how Apple intends to keep soil that it moves around the site from washing into creeks and other areas, and that the site will have multiple gravel roads for access to its solar panels. The plans are called "Project Dolphin Solar Farm A Expanded." FYI: Project Dolphin was the code name given Apple's plans to build the $1 billion data center in Maiden, according to the Charlotte Observer.

Frankly, there aren’t that many data centers powered solely by solar. That’s mainly because data centers require such large amounts of energy that powering them via solar would very large installations of PV solar panels. But companies continue to research the problem.

Back in August, Advanced Micro Devices and Hewlett-Packard announced they are partnering with the state of New York and Clarkson University on a research project to figure how best to use renewable energy – including solar and wind – to power containerized data centers. In the initial phase of the $674,000 project (which is being funded by private sources and the N.Y. State Energy Research and Development Authority) Clarkson students will experiment with managing data through a distributed network that is powered by renewable energy. After that, hardware elements will be added, including HP’s POD with systems running AMD’s Opteron server processors, which the chip maker said are designed for greater energy efficiency and cloud computing.

This company, CG Tech Services, located in Shoreline, Washington, (which by the way began as a one-person show and now caters to small businesses) claims its data center for web and email hosting services is powered completely by solar.

According to the company’s site, the data center is powered by 120 on-site solar panels which generate electricity for the entire infrastructure, including the air conditioning, lighting, and servers at the data center. It is the first and only 100% completely solar powered, carbon free data center. The company reports that the emissions saved each year by the solar panels include 34,488+ pounds of CO2 (greenhouse), 50.6+ pounds of Nitrogen Oxide (smog), and 37.4+ pounds of Sulfate (acid rain).

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