Apple’s “Project Dolphin” Green Energy Facility In North Carolina Among Nation’s Biggest

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Word got around way back in the middle of 2010 that Apple was building a monster data center near Maiden, South North Carolina. Later, it was shown to be hosting a ton of Nuance software, for obvious reasons. Less widely reported was the fact that nearby, scores of acres were being cleared for a solar array.

Now, it turns out that solar array will be the largest “end user-owned, onsite” one in the nation. They’re also planning a biogas/fuel-cell facility with similar credentials.

The information comes from Apple’s latest environmental report which, it should be noted, has nothing at all to do with the environmental factors involved in the actual manufacturing of Apple goods. Nor does the “Waste and Recycling” section detail the fact that Apple is regularly rated as being among the least eco-conscious packagers and device-builders in the world. But that is all by the by. The report is a voluntary, domestic one.

The facilities, neither of which is complete (with no date set for completion), are directly adjacent to the new datacenter, which is itself in a league of its own in terms of energy efficiency. The solar array will cover 100 acres and produce 20 megawatts or 42 million kilowatt-hours annually, depending on how you want to measure it. The fuel cell installation will be 5 megawatts, providing around the same kWh.

The datacenter has been estimated to require as much as 100 megawatts, however, so the rest will, of course, be made up by the coal plants powering much of North Carolina. And saying it’s the biggest “end user-owned, onsite” facility is putting rather a fine point on it. Still meritorious, just not revolutionary.

It seemed to me that in light of recent criticism of Apple’s policies regarding its manufacturing partners abroad (including my own), it was only fair to provide this information as well. Not because Apple somehow deserves it, but because it helps give an idea of how money can and must be invested in tech. China has invested trillions and decades to creating the manufacturing capabilities it has today. It would be folly to attempt the same in the US, starting today — a US-built iPhone is not a proposal that bears any scrutiny.

But there are great advantages to locating datacenters in the US, and in investing heavily in green power. Most major companies are doing so, and almost none are opting to manufacture goods locally. At the moment, even major investments like this one are peanuts compared to the costs and scale of energy consumption and manufacturing power required elsewhere, but it’s nice to see records being set this way by Apple, even if it’s only a drop in the bucket.

The full report can be downloaded here (PDF).