Apple is in the early stages of installing an array of solar panels on a large parcel of land it is clearing for its new data center in Maiden, North Carolina, according to documents filed with officials in Catawba County. The company is in the process of clearing trees from 171 acres of land across from its 500,000 square foot iDataCenter.
While a solar power generation facility could make Apple’s data center slightly greener, local residents are complaining about smoke in the area from fires to burn off cleared trees and debris on the Apple property, according to local media.
Few details are available about Apple’s plans for a solar array, which were referenced in an application for a soil erosion permit with the county. Apple has yet to submit plans with Maiden for additional work at the site.
More Data Centers Using Solar Power
If it goes forward with the solar panels, Apple will join a growing number of data center operators building on-site solar arrays to supplement their use of utility power. Most of these companies have used solar energy to support officer areas rather than data halls.
Solar power hasn’t been widely used in data centers because it takes a very large installation of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels to produce even a fraction of the energy required by most data centers. It takes about seven acres of photovoltaic panels to generate 1 megawatt of electricity. By that math, if Apple packed the entire 170 acre parcel with solar panels – an unlikely approach – it could generate up to 24 megawatts of power. Estimates of the power capacity for the Apple data center range from 40 megawatts up to 100 megawatts.
The largest current project to incorporate solar energy into a data center is at The McGraw-Hill Companies, which is building a 50-acre solar array in East Windsor, New Jersey that will yield 14 megawatts of solar generation.
Solar as Symbol of Sustainability
While the economics of solar power remain a challenge for large users, the recent flurry of on-site solar arrays suggest that data center operators are recognizing the value of these arrays as a symbol of the industry’s commitment to sustainability. This year we have seen solar installations at new data centers for Cisco Systems (Allen, Texas), and both Facebook and BendBroadband in Oregon.
The environmental group Greenpeace has identified Apple as the leading offender in using energy from “dirty” sources to power its data centers, including coal and nuclear power. The group’s finding relies almost entirely on the impact of the company’s huge new data center in Maiden. Duke Energy, the local utility, currently sources 52 percent of its energy in the Carolinas from nuclear power, 37 percent from fossil fuels, and 7 percent from forms of hydro-electric power.
When it comes to clean air, Apple is drawing fire from neighbors, who tell the Hickory Daily Record that fires burning on the Apple property have shrouded their neighborhood in a cloud of smoke. “The told us they would have a fire, and only do it when the wind’s blowing away,” Maiden resident Zelda Vosburgh told the paper. “They do it 24 hours a day. The house inside smells like smoke. I don’t know if it’s hurting us, breathing it 24 hours a day. Between the smell and the smoke, it’s bad.”
Companies are allowed to burn wood when they clear land, as long as the fire is not blowing toward the road or occupied housing when the fire begins, according to state officials.