Big Tech May Determine Fate Of Renewable Energy In NC

Oct 27, 2014

Apple's solar farm in Maiden, NC.
Credit Apple

When Apple makes an announcement – any announcement – the world stops and listens. And while it wasn’t a new product launch, when Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke last month ahead of the United Nations Climate Summit, it was a big deal.

“We have a huge data center in Maiden North Carolina,” Cook said. “There were no options to buy renewable energy. Our only way to do that, was to build it.”

What Apple built was the country’s largest private solar farm. It’s big enough to power 14,000 homes, and combined with biogas fuel cells, the company says it supplies 100 percent of the data center’s electricity needs.

Apple isn’t the only tech company with data centers in North Carolina. Google’s is just down the road in Lenoir. Facebook has one in Forest City. Disney and AT&T are nearby, too. When those companies were looking to build those facilities, North Carolina was attractive for two major reasons: huge tax incentives and cheap electricity.

“That’s one of the things that’s been very attractive about North Carolina, we can bring industry here because we do have attractive rates lower than the national average,” said Jeff Brooks, a spokesman for Duke Energy. “But when we inject that sustainability element, then they want those at affordable rates but also with options for investing in renewable.”

Data centers use massive amounts of power, 24 hours a day. Currently, about 40 percent of the electricity Duke Energy produces in the Carolinas comes from coal.  

That’s becoming an increasing problem for the tech companies.

“People want to make sure that their emails and their Facebook photos and their Twitter accounts are all being run on clean clouds,” said Monica Embrey with Greenpeace in Charlotte. “And that means that tech industries that run major data centers have to be powering those data centers with clean, renewable energy sources so that their customers are happy.”

As international pressure has increased to get greener, Apple stayed close to its company’s identity and built its own renewable power production in-house. Apple did not return requests for comment.

Google went a different direction. It chose to use its purchasing power to pressure Duke Energy to provide more green power.

“We’re looking for solutions that can have the highest possible impact on the industry,” said Michael Terrell, Senior Energy Policy Counsel at Google.

When Google wanted to begin a $600 million expansion to its Lenoir data center, it pushed Duke Energy to develop something called a “Green Source Rider.” It was the first time a program had been requested by a consumer that allows a company to buy electricity that’s produced from renewable sources.

It may cost a little more, but Google hopes this strategy will blaze a trail for other electricity customers.

“And that was certainly one of our drivers with the green source rider was that, we could have done a project that was specific to us only, but we’re looking for solutions that are scalable and solutions that other people and customers can take advantage of,” said Terrell.

Last December, the North Carolina Utility Commission approved the Green Source Rider. Last month, Duke Energy announced a $500 million commitment to solar power. Duke Energy officials say the two events are unrelated, and that the renewable standards set by the state are the primary motivating factor.

But Greenpeace’s Monica Embrey thinks differently.

“I think efforts like the Green Source Rider and others are really clear indications that the tech industry is taking really seriously their commitments to advance renewable energy in the state.”

Tech companies are notoriously secretive about pretty much everything they do. But this summer, Apple quietly began construction on another solar farm in North Carolina. And Google has hinted that its Lenoir data center could expand further, in the future.

And as the data centers grow in the North Carolina foothills, so will the demand – and pressure - for renewable energy.