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Will Apple Beat Google to Tap NC's Pig Power?

by 5m Editor
10 April 2012, at 12:58pm

NORTH CAROLINA, US - Renewable methane gas produced by North Carolina’s massive hog farms has already attracted the attention of Google, and it looks like Apple could become the next tech giant to join the state’s hog waste “black gold“ rush.

According to TPM, earlier this year, Apple revealed that it would build an enormous 5 megawatt fuel cell installation at its new Maiden, North Carolina data center, which is already the location of a gigantic solar array.

The fuel cell project will be the largest private facility of its kind in the nation. If it does end up running on renewable biogas produced from hog waste, it could easily leapfrog over Google’s endeavor, which is a demonstration manure-to-methane plant that partners the company with Duke University, Duke Energy and a local hog farm.

Fuel cells produce electricity through a chemical reaction, and at least initially Apple’s new fuel cell farm would run on conventional natural gas supplied by the Piedmont Natural Gas company according to the Raleigh-based News & Observer.

Pig-produced gas would come into the picture if Apple is to qualify for North Carolina’s renewable energy credits, in which case the company could offset its use of conventional gas by fostering the production of renewable biogas elsewhere in the state.

The fuel cells themselves also have the potential to run directly on renewable methane produced from manure-to-energy systems. Though Apple has not yet officially announced its fuel cell supplier, rumor has it that they will come from California based Bloom Energy, which states that its signature Bloom Box fuel cells can use a variety of fuel sources renewable biogas produced from landfills or livestock operations.

Last year the company announced that the global telecom giant NTT was running an installation of Bloom Box fuel cells at its San Jose data center using renewable biogas.

Another US company that could qualify for the job by virtue of its size and experience is Connecticut-based UTC Power, which has been exploring the potential for linking its fuel cells with livestock operations in the US and China.

Either way, the new Maiden facility provides a big boost for Apple’s green cred. Until now the company has been lagging behind other tech giants such as Google and Facebook for bragging rights on sustainability leadership, and the Maiden data center has given it plenty to crow about.

On its website, Apple states that its goal is to “run the Maiden facility with high percentage renewable energy mix,“ which it expects to achieve through the fuel cell facility and solar array.

In addition, the Maiden data center deploys several strategies to reduce its use of electricity for cooling, including a high-efficiency chilled water storage system and a reflective white roof. The facility also boasts high efficiency LED lighting and a “smart“ electrical system.

According to Apple, the new data center is the largest to achieve a LEED (Leadership in Environmental Engineering and Design) Platinum certification from the US Green Building Council, which sets the highest standard for energy efficiency and renewable energy among other green parameters.

As for North Carolina’s hog waste, the state is taking a close look at this uptapped resource as a means of reducing its dependence on coal-fired power plants. A network of manure-to-gas facilities would also relieve the state of the environmental headaches brought on by its too-successful hog industry, which came to light in 1995 after a 25-million gallon hog waste lagoon broke open, saturated nearby fields and created a massive fish kill in a nearby river.

In addition to Duke University’s project, the University of North Carolina has been researching manure-to-energy as a way to eliminate odors and waste disposal issues at hog farms. The North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University has also been investigating the potential for hog waste to produce biodiesel and other oils, including a tarlike asphalt substitute that could be used for road surfaces.