Apple’s Solar Power Plants Igniting U.S. Clean Energy Economy

3 minute read
| Analysis

Apple is very much into solar power. The company has made a commitment to clean energy and has been building solar power plants both in the U.S. and China. I’ve looked into Apple’s efforts with solar energy and its many new installations. I want to put what Apple is doing in perspective with some numbers.

Solar Power Farm

Typical solar farm. Via Shutterstock

The recent news item that triggered my research into Apple and solar power was this announcement from NV Energy, Inc.

NV Energy and Apple announced today [Jan 25] they have reached an agreement to build 200 megawatts of additional solar energy in Nevada by early 2019. The projects will support Apple’s renewable energy needs for its Reno data center.

That number, 200 MW (megawatts), caught my eye, because that’s a pretty good-sized solar energy plant. The physicist in me started thinking about the numbers.

Perspectives

First, commercial solar power plants tend to be somewhat smaller than coal or nuclear plants. They range in size from about 10- 13 MW to 280 MW. By contrast….

A typical (500 megawatt) coal plant burns 1.4 million tons of coal each year. As of 2012, there are 572 operational coal plants in the U.S. with an average capacity of 547 megawatts.

Nuclear power plants, of which the U.S. has 61 sites, tend to be about the same size as coal plants. That is, each reactor. Some sites have multiple reactors.

Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska has one reactor with the smallest generating capacity1 of 479 megawatts (MW). The Palo Verde plant in Arizona has three reactors and has the largest combined generating capacity of about 3,937 MW.

One solar plant that particularly intrigues me, one done in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, is the Crescent Dunes power plant near Tonopah, Nevada. Instead of photovoltaic cells (PV), it uses heliostats (moving, aluminum mirrors that follow the sun), to focus sunlight onto a 640 ft (195 m) tower and heat salt to molten. The environmentally friendly molten salt can be stored and can generate steam and electricity even when the sun is down. Its power capacity is 110 MW.

Crescent Dunes solar power plant near Tonopah, NV

Crescent Dunes solar power plant near Tonopah, NV

What can a megawatt (MW) of power do? The average home in the U.S. consumes 10,837 kW-h (kilowatt-hours) of energy in a year. That’s an average power draw of 1.23 kilowatts. And so a megawatt (MW) of power can sustain about 800 homes. A mere 50 MW solar power plant could sustain 40,000 homes (in the daytime).

As an aside, the average electricity cost in the U.S. (2015) was 12.7 cents/kW-h. The highest rate is Hawaii at 27.1 cents/kW-h. The lowest is Louisiana at 9.05 cents/kW-h.

How Many Plants Does Apple Have?

A quick check of Google shows that Apple has or is building many solar power plants. It’s doing this by itself in some cases or in concert with local power companies that have expertise in solar power. Here’s what I found in a casual search. No one website lists them all that I could find. But Apple notes that a total of 4 GW of capacity are in the planning stages.

  1. California Flats Solar Project, Monterey County – 280 MW* (First Solar + Apple)
  2. Mesa, AZ, 50 MW
  3. Florence, AZ, 50 MW
  4. Maiden, NC, 12 MW
  5. Claremont, NC, 17.5 MW
  6. Conover, NC, 10 MW
  7. Boulder City, NV, 100 MW
  8. Reno, NV, 200 MW*

*indicates planned or under construction.

Apple solar array

Apple: “Our 4 gigawatts of clean energy projects around the world will avoid more than 30 million metric tons of carbon pollution by 2020. That’s the equivalent of taking more than 6 million cars off the road for one year.”

A very good summary of Apple’s ambitious plans can be found here: “How Apple’s Solar Strategy Evolved.” What may not be well known is Apple’s work with China. From Apple’s website:

We’re building 200 megawatts of solar in China, starting with a 170-megawatt solar project in Inner Mongolia, to begin offsetting our manufacturing emissions. We’re also working with suppliers to install more than 4 gigawatts of new clean energy worldwide, including 2 gigawatts in China by 2020. And over the next two years, Foxconn will install 400 megawatts of solar to cover the energy use of its iPhone final production facility in Zhengzhou.

Let There Be Light

Apple is doing an amazing job of doing its part to provide clean, renewable energy for its own corporate and data center needs as well as, in some cases, the community. What it doesn’t use for itself, it will sell on the open market.

How the new administration approaches renewable energy, especially solar power, remains to be seen. But concerns are being expressed. No doubt, Apple’s commitment to solar power technology both in the U.S. and China has—and and will again—come up in discussions with the new U.S. president.

5 Comments Add a comment

  1. When you talked about size of the power plant, my first thought was of acres of land used. So I was a little bit disappointed that you were only referring to generated output. Which is fine, and in line with the thrust of your post. But still I mused about the land used. Though coal power plants are probably smaller than solar farms, that coal plant footprint should include the size of the hole in the ground called a coal mine (as well as lots of environmental damage for miles and miles).

    One often sees solar panels on the ground as in this solar farm on top, probably fenced off for security purposes. But in residential solar and many commercial or industrial solar panels are placed on the roofs of buildings. I hope future solar installations include many atop automobile parking facilities, where they could simultaneously gather energy and keep vehicles beneath them cooler.

    BTW, here in N California, our December PG&E bill has us paying (including clean electric generation charges) 18.4 cents per kWh.

  2. ibuck: I saw acreage figures for many of the solar sites, but in an article this short, I thought it important to avoid too many site details and focus on the megawatts of the various kinds of power plants. That was interesting to me.

    Indeed, one has to weigh the land footprint against the carbon footprint.

  3. MacFrogger

    Hey John – nice article. A few additional points:

    1. Don’t forget Al Gore sits on Apple’s board – and he’s an effective advocate for these moves and Apple’s broader commitment to renewable energy.
    2. Most people don’t know that coal plants produce LOTS of (mostly unregulated) radioactive waste – no that’s not a typo – and release 10x more radiation into the environment than a comparably-sized nuclear power plant.
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste/
    3. While solar PV and wind energy have had a marginal impact on the coal industry, the primary cause for the decline of this industry (and the coal mining jobs that go with it) is the substitution of cheap natural gas for coal in domestic power plants. This cheap natural gas is coming from fracking.

    It’s especially important to understand this last point – and its ramifications. (You may not personally approve of fracking but facts are facts. “Alternative facts” don’t apply here.) Now imagine you are Donald Trump and your goal is to revive the coal industry. Going after environmental regulations won’t revive coal, because they’re not the reasons why gas costs less than coal. You’d have to find a way to tinker with the “free market” to lower the price of coal (with subsidies?) and/or find a way to raise the price of gas (perhaps with a tax?). Neither of these are politically palatable options, and you can only imagine the howls of protest from the gas industry who would claim that Trump is meddling in free markets and promoting one part of the fossil fuel industry over another.

    Now pretend that you are a utility CEO and you have to make a large capital investment in a new power plant with a lifespan measured in decades: Which fuel would you choose to burn? Gas costs less than coal, produces less CO2/unit of power, and overall burns much cleaner (see point 2 above). There’s other advantages to gas as well, but let’s keep it simple for now. Whether you personally believe Trump is good or bad doesn’t matter – you realize he will serve his time and be gone. Then what happens if the pendulum swings the other way and there’s a carbon tax applied because by now climate change is causing widespread disruption? The only sound business decision is to go with gas, because you have to think about this investment in terms of decades – not whatever time Trump occupies the Oval Office.

    Bottom line is this: people say there is no longer any bi-partisanship left in DC. As Trump might tweet: WRONG! There is plenty to be had if you look a little bit closer. It doesn’t matter if you are a D or an R – if you are from Kentucky or West Virginia you are pro-coal. But similarly, even otherwise staunch conservative Senator Grassley (R-Iowa) is a strong supporter of wind energy because Iowa has a great deal of wind. Such is even the case for new DOE head Rick Perry, who’s buddy T. Boone Pickens is heavily invested in wind and the state of Texas is one of the leading wind energy producing states in the US. I could cite other examples; I even have a fleeting recollection of Grassley saying something in the past like they (the Congress) would get rid of wind energy subsidies over his dead body. In summary: the GOP is not monolithic and remember all politics are local. And Trump will not be bringing back the coal industry – its in permanent decline.

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