Big tech loves solar

GigaOm special report dives deeper into Apple’s solar-powered data center moves, GTM rolls out timeline of Google’s clean energy investments

Apple solar NorthCarolina

Do you know which über-brand owns the largest privately held solar farms in the United States? Hint: think crunchy fruit, mobile devices, and best-selling biographies of deceased geniuses. Yes, the answer is of course Apple, by virtue of its pair of 20MW ground-mounted PV systems located adjacent to the company’s data centers in North Carolina. GigaOm’s Katie Fehrenbacher, one of the first reporters to write about the Apple clean energy moves a few years back, has posted an exclusive special report based on her recent sortie to the region, replete with multiple photos of the sites.

Katie was allowed access to the facilities (as well as a 10MW Bloom fuel-cell power plant) and provides more impressionistic and factual details than have been previously published. Both solar farms were built and are operated by SunPower and feature tens of thousands of the PV firm’s high-efficiency monocrystalline silicon panels on single-axis trackers, capable of generating tens of millions of kilowatt-hours of sun-juice annually. One of the O&M techniques at the sites: the use of sheep to keep the grass down. Goats won’t do evidently, since they might munch on the wiring and other componentry.

I would have liked to see more about the cost of the installed systems as well as solar-geeky details about any construction challenges faced on the sites, but such questions remain unanswered in Katie’s piece, perhaps due to Apple’s notoriously tight-lipped reluctance to discuss anything operational with the media. As a result, she fills the gaps with speculative narrative such as the following.

“In the world of clean energy there are a lot of ways that companies can pay to green their operations—many buy renewable energy credits that offset consumption of fossil fuel based energy,” Katie wrote. “But building solar farms and a fuel cell farm next to a data center could be the surest way to add clean power in a way that can be validated and seen by the public. It seems like Apple execs thought if they were going to commit to the whole idea of clean energy, it was going to be all the way.”

The report also includes a discussion of regional utility Duke Energy’s recent announcement that it would like to sell more renewable resources to big customers, the “greening” of data centers, and Google’s billion-dollar-plus investments in clean energy. With its mix of on-the-ground reporting, informed conjecture, and analytical commentary, the article is well worth a read.

Speaking of Google, its most recent solar move–an $80 million equity investment, along with partners KKR and Recurrent Energy, into a half-dozen solar projects– garnered a fair amount of media buzz and SEO activity (homecourt advantage, as it were), inspiring Greentech Media’s Stephen Lacey to put together a timeline-informed feature of the search engine giant’s clean energy outlays.

For anyone doubting the sincerity and seriousness of Goog’s forays into renewables, the article should put such skepticism to rest. The list of investments is impressive and eclectic, even if not always the wisest in hindsight, such as its now-shuttered experimental RE<C initiative, which sank a fair amount of cash into concentrated solar power and enhanced geothermal startups. But you win a few, you lose a whole lot more in the VC world, and Google seems to be looking at the long-term big picture. GTM quoted financial ace Kojo Ako-Asare, who wrote in the company’s blog: “You’d think the thrill might wear off this whole renewable energy investing thing after a while. Nope—we’re still as into it as ever.”