It’s arrived: The evolution of clean power & data centers

The world’s largest internet companies are turning to clean power to run their data centers like never before. This month we saw huge clean power deals from Apple, including big solar projects planned in California and Arizona, and a big wind buy from Google to provide local power for its headquarters in Silicon Valley.

But it wasn’t always this way. It’s only been in the last several years that Apple, Google, Facebook and others have been embracing clean power as a viable option to provide a significant amount of power for their data centers, and it’s taken years for the power industry, and the internet companies themselves, to adjust to and learn about this emerging world.

Google/Connie Zhou

Google data center, image courtesy of Google/Connie Zhou

If we take a peek back at this history, we can see how it slowly emerged. Let’s take the state of North Carolina where Google, Facebook and Apple all have some of the largest data centers in the U.S. to power some of their east coast operations. Work in that region provided key learnings for how these companies developed their individual strategies for how to adopt and embrace clean power.

I took my first road trip around the area in the summer of 2012 and wrote about the companies’ complicated relationship with the region’s dirty and clean power options. In late 2013, I took another trip to investigate Apple’s already built monumental solar farms there.

Facebook's data center in North Carolina.

Facebook’s data center in North Carolina. Image courtesy of Gigaom/Katie Fehrenbacher

Back in 2006, when Google first started looking at the state for building its east coast data center (the facility was announced in early 2007), clean power wasn’t at the top of mind for even Google, who later pioneered using clean power and has invested over a billion dollars into it. In those years, North Carolina’s power grid only generated four percent of its electricity from renewable sources, with coal at 61 percent and nuclear power at 31 percent. Google just plugged into the grid there anyways without a working strategy to incorporate clean power.

Gary Demasi, who has helped lead Google’s efforts purchasing clean power for data centers, told me in an interview for that initial story that Google, at the time, was obviously cognizant of the somewhat dirty energy-generation mix of North Carolina, but that Google has “gotten more proactive and aggressive since then.”

All the internet companies have.

Apple's fuel cell farm next to its data center in Maiden, North Carolina

Apple’s fuel cell farm next to its data center in Maiden, North Carolina

Three years later in 2009 when Apple and Facebook were considering building data centers in North Carolina, clean power was still an early idea. It was attractive in some emerging ways, but the state and local utilities weren’t offering the type of clean power options that the internet companies wanted.

That’s why in late 2011 Apple started building its unusual and massive solar farms in the area. Built by SunPower, these solar farms now stretch across hundreds of acres and now generate more solar power than Apple needs for that facility. The company also has a fuel cell farm built beside the data center. Apple agreed to plug into the state’s grid, but it was also generating its own clean power that went back onto the grid and made up for its use of the dirty grid power.

Apple's solar farm next to its data center in Maiden, North Carolina, image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher Gigaom

Apple’s solar farm next to its data center in Maiden, North Carolina, image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher Gigaom

Apple’s solar farms ended up putting pressure on local utility Duke Energy and the state to recognize that if there was ample clean power provided to these customers from the power grid, then they wouldn’t need to build their own. In late 2013, Duke Energy officially asked the state’s regulators if it could sell clean power from new sources to large energy customers that were willing to buy it — yes, thanks to restrictive regulations and an electricity industry that moves at a glacial pace, this formerly wasn’t allowed.

Now Duke Energy has a clean energy supply program in the state. And just this week, Duke Energy issued a request for proposal asking for project builders to build 50 MW worth of solar projects in the state.

So utilities and state regulators are adjusting to internet companies’ desires, but the internet companies are learning, too. While Apple’s solar farms and fuel cell farm in North Carolina were the first of its kind and ahead of the curve, Apple’s deals with First Solar in California and local utility Salt River Project in Arizona seem somewhat more sophisticated. They’re far larger, and they were done far in advance of construction.

Apple's solar farm in North Carolina. Image courtesy of Apple.

Apple’s solar farm in North Carolina. Image courtesy of Apple.

Apple will buy solar power from First Solar’s planned solar farm in Monterey County via a fixed, low-cost 25 year power purchase agreement, and will also buy solar power from Salt River Project’s farms in a similar way, too. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has said that the way that the deal in California, in particular, is structured the company will actually save money in power costs over the long term.

So what was once a more expensive, niche source of power has now become a substantial clean power option — and one that now big name internet companies feel more comfortable embracing. In California, utility-scale solar farms — which is basically what Apple is buying from in Monterey County — can be built for as low as $1.68 a watt, according to GTM Research, thanks to a combination of private markets, a decade of lowering technology costs and federal and state incentives.

Google plans to buy 43 MW over 20 years from new wind turbines being built at Altamont Pass

Google plans to buy 43 MW over 20 years from new wind turbines being built at Altamont Pass

Solar panels are at the cheapest time in history. Wind power, too, is similarly cheap. Google’s deal to buy power from the revamped Altamont Pass shows how wind turbines have come down considerably in price and up in power.

Now, the official embrace of these internet companies and clean power is just one part of the story. There’s a whole host of smaller data center operators that can’t afford to deal at the scale of Google or Apple. But Google and Apple are still paving the way for the smaller companies by changing utilities minds that there’s a good business to be had in clean power.

At the end of the day, data centers are only consuming a couple percentage points of U.S. energy. So they’re not necessarily the leading energy problem these days, but since they are owned by influential and consumer-facing brands, they could do a lot to initiate the development of clean power outside of the tech industry.

Google to buy wind power from Bay Area’s Altamont Pass

Google will finally be able to say that its Mountain View headquarters is powered by 100 percent clean energy. On Wednesday, Google announced via a blog post (and reported in more detail by the San Jose Mercury) that it plans to buy half of the electricity that will be produced by a newly upgraded wind project at the Altamont Pass, off of the 580 freeway near Livermore, Calif.

The Altamont Pass wind farm was originally developed in the 1980s and was one of the first and largest wind farms in the U.S. But over the decades, wind turbine technology has progressed considerably, and in recent years thousands of the smaller turbines at the Altamont Pass have started to be decommissioned.

Google to buy wind power from refurbished Altamont Pass wind project

Google to buy wind power from refurbished Altamont Pass wind project

Now NextEra Energy Resources, which is developing the new wind project, plans to install a few hundred newer and larger turbines to provide the same amount of wind power as the many smaller ones used to. Google plans to buy 43 MW — or half — of the total amount of wind power from the project via a 20-year power purchase agreement and an undisclosed company (one that isn’t a tech company or utility, the Mercury reported), will buy the other half of the power. The new turbines will start providing wind power to the grid in 2016.

This is just the latest move by Google to tap into clean power. Over the years the company has spent over a billion dollars on various clean energy projects, through project financing, power purchase agreements and even equity. Over a third of Google’s energy now comes from clean power.

And Google isn’t the only internet company that’s doing this. Earlier this week Apple announced that it plans to buy $850 million worth of solar power from a new solar panel farm that is being built in Monterey County, Calif. Apple has a goal to run completely on clean power, and will be powering a new data center in Arizona with solar farms, too.

Another huge solar panel farm opens in California

Just months after the world’s largest solar panel farm, called Topaz, was turned on outside of San Luis Obispo, Calif., on Monday a similarly-large solar panel farm is being officially dedicated in Riverside County. The solar farm is called Desert Sunlight, and it — like Topaz — has enough capacity for 550 MW, and can produce enough solar electricity for 160,000 homes.

The Topaz solar farm.

The Topaz solar farm.

Desert Sunlight, which was was quietly finished in mid-January, was installed on land managed by the Federal Bureau of Land Management, and, like Topaz, is using solar panels from First Solar. NextEra Energy, GE Energy Financial Services and Sumitomo Corporation of America own Desert Sunlight and the project used guarantees from the U.S. government to back $1.4 billion in loans.

The U.S. government’s loan program took the opportunity of the Desert Sunlight dedication to tout how its loan guarantees helped spur the market for utility scale solar in the Southwest of the U.S. A release notes: “LPO helped finance the first five utility-scale PV projects larger than 100 MW in the U.S. With Desert Sunlight now fully operational, all five projects are online, generating clean electricity and repaying loans.”

To read more about why these huge solar panel farms are being built and how they work check out:

Special report: How the rise of a mega solar farm shows us the future of energy

Apple to build $2B solar-powered “command center” data center at Arizona factory site

The question of what Apple plans to do with its factory in Mesa, Arizona, which it was going to lease to now-bankrupt former partner and sapphire glass maker GT Advanced Technologies, is now answered. On Monday Apple and the Governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, announced that the iPhone giant plans to spend $2 billion building out a huge data center facility that will act as “a command center” for its global data center network.

The project is one of the largest investments that Apple has ever made and when completed it will add over 600 engineering and construction jobs. Apple plans to start building the facility as soon as it has control of it from GT Advanced Technologies, and it said that while the project has a 30-year timeline, it will ramp up quickly.

The 1.3 million-square-foot manufacturing facility was previously owned by solar panel maker First Solar, which never used the site after it scaled back its manufacturing in 2012. When Apple announced it planned to buy the site in late 2013 to lease to GT, there was much rejoicing in Arizona, as the sapphire glass factory was going to lead to 1,400 construction and the cachet of having Apple in town. Apple reportedly wanted to use the ultra strong sapphire glass for unbreakable touch screens.

Apple's solar farm next to its data center in Maiden, North Carolina, image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher Gigaom

Apple’s solar farm next to its data center in Maiden, North Carolina, image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher Gigaom

But about a year after the deal between Apple and GT was announced, GT filed for bankruptcy, siting oppressive and burdensome terms and obligations around its deal with Apple. GT said it was shutting down the factory, winding down operations and letting go many employees. Apple said in a release today that it has worked with its local partners to help about half of the employees that were let go because of the bankruptcy to find new employment.

Apple says the data center facility in Arizona will be powered completely by clean energy, including new solar plants developed with local utility Salt River Project. The solar plants will provide 70 MW of solar power for Apple, which is enough solar energy for 14,500 Arizonan homes. Apple also has clean energy powered data centers in North Carolina and Nevada.

Greenpeace applauded Apple’s 100 percent clean energy-powered facility on Monday. Apple execs said that 70 MW worth of new solar farms could also help spur Arizona’s solar market.

Read more about Apple’s ground-breaking bet on its clean energy infrastructure in this post from last year.

Looking for a job? Try the solar industry

The growth rate for jobs in the solar industry last year was almost 20 times higher than the national average employment growth rate in the U.S., according to a new report out from non-profit The Solar Foundation. In 2014, 31,000 new solar jobs were created, delivering a U.S. solar workforce of 173,807, which was 21.8 percent bigger than the U.S. solar workforce back in November 2013.

The solar industry now represents 1.3 percent of all jobs in the U.S., making it larger than some fossil fuel sectors like coal mining. And it grew faster than some growing fossil fuel industries did last year, adding more jobs in 2014 than both the oil and gas pipeline construction industry, and the crude petroleum and natural gas extraction industry.

First Solar panels at Agua Caliente

First Solar panels at Agua Caliente

Over the past four years about 81,000 solar jobs were created, showing growth of 86 percent over four years. These are jobs like installers of rooftops solar systems and ground-mounted solar systems, solar sales and marketers, and corporate jobs at big American solar companies like First Solar, SunEdison, SunPower and SolarCity (added 4,000 jobs in 2014).

Two huge solar panel farms just went online in California, which employed about 400 workers each. For the first three quarters of 2014, more than one third (36 percent) of the new electricity capacity built out in the U.S. came from solar systems, according to a report from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

This year the solar sector expects to add another 36,000 jobs, showing even more growth in 2015, says The Solar Foundation. At the same time, the solar industry is worried that if the federal incentive, the investment tax credit, is lowered (it’s set to expire but could be renewed) in the near future, it could curb some of the recent growth in the sector.

First Solar turns GE from enemy into investor

GE was poised to be First Solar’s major nemesis. But now GE has become one of First Solar’s largest shareholders by selling its thin film solar technology to the panel giant.