Apple’s massive fuel cell energy project to be largest in the U.S.

“North Carolina will be home to the nation’s largest private fuel cell energy project, a nonpolluting, silent power plant that will generate electricity from hydrogen,” Jeff Willhelm reports for The Charlotte Observer.

“Apple (yes, that Apple) filed its plans with the N.C. Utilities Commission last week to build the 4.8-megawatt project in Maiden, about 40 miles northwest of Charlotte,” Willhelm reports. “That’s where Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple has built a data center to support the company’s iCloud online data storage system and its Siri voice-recognition software.”

Willhelm reports, “The fuel cell project, the nation’s largest such project not built by an electric utility company, will be developed this year. It will be located on the same data complex that will host a planned 20-megawatt solar farm – the biggest ever proposed in this state.”

“The facility will consist of 24 fuel cell modules. It will extract hydrogen from natural gas supplied by Piedmont Natural Gas. But it’s not clear how much gas will be required,” Willhelm reports. “To qualify as a renewable facility, Apple or Bloom will arrange to produce landfill methane gas or some other biogas to offset its natural gas use. The biogas supplier has not been named, but that information will have to be disclosed to win approval from the N.C. Utilities Commission.”

Willhelm reports, “Apple currently has a 500,000-square-foot data center on the 11.5-acre site. Construction recently began on a second building on the campus, but whether it will be another data center or a building related to the fuel cell investment is unclear.”

Read more in the full article here.

21 Comments

    1. Greenpeace won’t like this because it’s still using fossil fuels, even if it is in a way that significantly reduces byproducts. Basically, unless it’s 100% solar or wind, they’ll always be haters.

      1. That’s where the bio-methane kicks in. They actually use natural gas, but get credit for using the renewable by-product from a pig farm. That way they are green without having to actually be next to a pig farm. It’s a little convoluted, but the outcomes are in a good place.

        What I wonder is how much of Apples total energy for the data center will come from the combination of the solar farm and the fuel cell installation. Personally would like to see them shoot for 100%, just to show what’s possible. They may be disrupting yet another industry.

        1. Renewable Energy ≠ Clean Energy

          And that’s where Greenpeace will have a problem. Unless it’s both renewable and clean (solar, wind, tidal, etc.), they’ll be haters ad infinitum.

  1. “The facility will consist of 24 fuel cell modules. It will extract hydrogen from natural gas supplied by Piedmont Natural Gas.”

    This makes little sense to me. It was my understanding that the Bloom fuel cells could use natural gas *directly*, not require hydrogen as a fuel-stock. If that’s not the case, why not use natural gas – again directly – to just power a turbine? Perhaps someone can explain the energy/efficiency advantage.

    1. Fuel cells generally are not the most efficient method of extracting electrical energy from stored chemical energy although it is clean, the byproduct being water. Fuel cells are generally used aboard spacecraft where combustible material is to be avoided although the analogues are hydrogen and oxygen which are in themselves combustible in the case of hydrogen and an accelerant in the case of oxygen.

      The most efficient extraction of energy from fossil fuels is still coal but the byproduct of coal is soot which can be removed by scrubbers. The cost of electricity generated by coal is the lowest, in terms of fossil fuels although hydroelectric sources are the cheapest to run but not to build. Hydro plants also have an environmental footprint in terms of inundation but can be used as a tool for flood control and mitigation as well as for irrigation.

      The cheapest and most efficient alternate source of power remains nuclear but this requires processing plants usually fast breeder reactors to recycle the fuel.

      1. The cheapest power is electrical…. your neighbors electrical.

        All you need is to bury an extension cable under ground between the houses. Plug into one of his wall plugs and there you are. Use old looking plugs and wire as that way you can blame the previous owner. LOL

        My point here is that the above terms are open to use. Most efficient is not relevant if the methane gas comes from a waste site and is free.

        Just a thought,
        en

        1. Let’s look at the costs of carbon emissions.

          In Fantasy Land, whole Island states will disappear and millions will die a horrible death.

          In reality, all of America’s and China’s coal fired electricity generating plants are paying nothing for the CO2 they emmit.

          So, quite obviously, the costs of carbon emissions is zero, zilch, nada.

      2. Having some thermodynamic background from my education, it is clear that use the term “efficient” very loosely and in some interesting ways, BLN.

        I do not concur with most of your statements or conclusions. For instance, I am not sure how you came to the conclusion that coal is the most “efficient” approach for extracting electrical energy from fossil fuels. Why is coal more efficient than natural gas, for instance? In fact, fewer BTUs/kWh are required for natural gas combined cycle plants than for coal plants. Another problem – neither of these technologies can rapidly adapt to large variations in power consumption. The natural gas combustion turbine plants can do that, but at the expense of lower efficiency (33%-35%).

        Furthermore, Wikipedia states that the “…energy efficiency of a fuel cell is generally between 40-60%, or up to 85% efficient if waste heat is captured for use.” In fact, the alkaline fuel cells used on the Space Shuttle had a system efficiency of over 60% and a cell efficiency close to 70%. I am not aware of any traditional processes for the conversion of fossil fuels to electrical energy (even taking into account advanced technology concepts) that can compete with the potential efficiency offered by fuel cells. Indeed, the major issue with fuel cells is cost – high initial cost and high maintenance cost. But I expect significant improvement in these areas over time to the point that new homes and electric cars will be eventually equipped with fuel cells.

        Some fuel cell systems are reversible, meaning that a company could conceivably store excess photovoltaic power for use at night or to supplement peak power requirements.

        BLN, you also fail to address the transmission losses associated with electrical distribution from a centralized power plant relative to an in-situ fuel cell facility, or the advantages of in-situ electrical production to an already overtaxed U.S. power grid.

        You do have a valid point about nuclear power. I am personally a strong supporter of implementing advanced nuclear power plants in the U.S. as part of a diversified energy strategy. One of the major objections to fast breeder reactors has been the potential to use the reactors to generate material for nuclear weapons. In addition, these reactors use sodium coolant which is highly reactive in the presence of water.

        Stick to what you know.

        1. Efficiency in my book is a combination of price of the fuel and the amount of energy that can be extracted from it by converting chemical energy to electrical energy through various stages of combustion, heat exchange and mechanically driving the turbine blades to generate electricity according to Faraday’s law of electromechanical equivalency by cutting through a magnetic flux.

          I’m not going to delve further into this as this is not an energy forum.

          In terms of measuring energy extraction for a gas fired combined cycle power plant, it depends on the availability of natural gas piped through pipelines. The gas has to be processed through a processing plant. Depending on the proximity of a GPP (gas processing plant) to the power plant, transmission costs are generally higher than coal. Fluidized bed coal technology is efficient, safe and has little impact on the environment.

          1. @ Ballmer

            Cleverly seizing the name “Ballmer” and writing things like “I’m not going to delve further into this as this is not an energy forum” does not entitle you to say incorrect things with impunity.

            Stick to computer-related issues because a lot of what you wrote above is pure nonsense.

          2. BLN: Redefines “efficiency” on the fly.

            BLN: Throws in a few technical terms like “magnetic flux.”

            BLN: “Fluidized bed coal technology is efficient, safe and has little impact on the environment.”

            Little impact on the environment? Tell that to some of my relatives who live in West Virginia where the mountain tops have been cut off and dumped into the valleys, fouling the streams with sulphur.

            You are the frigging Cliff Claven of this forum, BLN. Just give it up.

    1. My guesses are: cheap land, access to major data trunks, proximity to data consumers on the east coast, good supply of skilled labor from nearby universities, beautiful place to live that can attract and retain workers.

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