Apple Building Mammoth Solar Array in North Carolina, but State’s Electricity Among ‘Dirtiest’ in Country

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Apple just released its annual environmental update, which whether you view it skeptically or not, comes with an intriguing surprise: The company says it’s planning to build a massive 100-acre solar array to power a new data center in North Carolina.

In its “Facilities Report: 2012 Environmental Update,” after describing all the energy improvements it claims to have made from 2006 forward, Apple mentions the 2011-commissioned Maiden, North Carolina data center, a facility it says “demonstrates [its] commitment to reduce the environmental impact of our facilities through energy- efficient, green building design.”

Boasts Cupertino: “The facility is exceptionally energy efficient and has earned the coveted LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. We know of no other data center of comparable size that has achieved this level of LEED certification.”

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The LEED rating — the name stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” — isn’t without its issues, but as a benchmark for “building sustainability,” it’s probably the most prestigious rating a company can earn, and “Platinum” is at the tip-top of a scale that includes (in rank order) “Certified,” “Silver” and “Gold.” The first structure in the U.S. to receive it was a building in Washington, D.C., and that only a few years ago. The D.C. building reportedly earned top marks for its “low-emissive glass in the curtain wall combined with chillers for energy efficiency and a solar-reflective roof with an 8,000-square-foot vegetated area to reduce heat island effect and peak storm runoff.”

Apple’s Maiden center will itself include its own battery of environmental conservation measures, including outside-air cooling mechanics, higher voltage power (to increase efficiency by reducing power loss), LED lighting with motion sensors, a “construction process” sourced from recycled and local materials and a “white cool-roof design to provide maximum solar reflectivity.”

And that’s just what’s inside the building. Cupertino says it’ll power much of the facility with what it describes as “the nation’s largest end user-owned, onsite solar array,” built on land surrounding the data center. We’re talking 100-acres, 20-megawatts big. Apple says it’ll supply the Maiden facility with 42 million kWh of “clean, renewable energy” each year.

Furthermore, Apple says it’s building a 5-megawatt fuel cell installation beside the Maiden data center that’ll go online later this year, making it the “largest non-utility fuel cell installation operating anywhere in the country.” It’ll power the installation using “100 percent biogas,” allowing it to provide “more than 40 million kWh of constant renewable energy each year.”

The Maiden data center is Apple’s latest attempt to improve its lackluster environmental image. Just last year, Greenpeace placed Cupertino at the bottom of a list, calling it the “least green” tech company because of Apple’s allegedly “dirty” data centers. In its report, Greenpeace noted North Carolina had become an attractive location for new data centers because of huge tax incentives and cheap electricity prices, but noted the “generation mix in North Carolina is one of the dirtiest in the country, with only 4% of electricity generation from renewable sources and the balance from coal (61%) and nuclear (30.8%).”

Greenpeace says the U.S. harbors about 40% of the world’s data center servers, and that it’s estimated these farms guzzle nearly 3% of the nation’s power. Noting Apple’s Maiden data center cost $1 billion to build, Greenpeace says it could use up to 100MW of power, or about as much as you’d need to power some 80,000 U.S. homes.

Despite Apple’s “coveted” LEED award, then, the question seems to be whether a “green” facility that still consumes incredible amounts of allegedly “dirty electricity” is, in the end, providing a net benefit.

[Update: Duke Energy, the largest provider of electricity in North Carolina, writes to say the company plans over the next five years to reduce carbon by 8%, nitrogen oxide by 48%, sulfur dioxide by 75% and that it’ll increase energy output by 11%. The company says “this is on top of the reductions we have done in the past decade – 70 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.” It adds that “nuclear is emission free, and a 24/7 source of power (needed since 30 percent of our demand is industrial and requires a constant source of power)” and that it’s spending billions to shut down old coal plants and invest in renewable sources of energy.]

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