Since 2007, the Fortune 500 company Duke Energy has spent over $3 billion on solar- and wind-power projects (Figure A). The breakdown in megawatts of solar power vs. megawatts of wind power is as follows:

  • Wind power: 1600 megawatts
  • Solar power: 100 megawatts

If the amount of solar power appears small, that is no longer the case: Duke Energy just committed $500 million to expand solar power in North Carolina. If North Carolina seems like a strange place to focus on solar power, there is a reason.

Duke Energy picked to delivery power

The story starts back in 2006, a year before Duke Energy began investing in renewable energy. At that time, North Carolina was courting corporations to build data centers in the state. Apple was looking for a place to build its 500,000 sq ft facility. North Carolina offered a deal, and Apple accepted.

As it turned out, Duke Energy would deliver power to the future Apple data center in Maiden, NC.

The story now fast-forwards to 2012. Wired’s Robert McMillan noticed that Duke Energy pulled a report describing the power company’s role in Apple selecting North Carolina. McMillan then offered reasons why in his article ‘Dirty’ Energy Co. Yanks Paper Bragging About Apple’s Power-Guzzling Ways. It seems the Duke Energy report may have included several environmentally-inappropriate statements. McMillan explained, “The report talks about Apple’s power consumption, a subject that has suddenly become controversial as Apple has come under fire for using too much energy from non-renewable sources at the Maiden data center.”

McMillan’s article also mentioned Greenpeace environmentalists were aware of the alleged statements made by Duke Energy representatives.

Dirty data triangle

Greenpeace already had issues with how the data centers in North Carolina were being powered as explained in this report. Greenpeace suggested, in the paper, why Apple, Facebook, and Google were locating their data centers in North Carolina, “These mega data centers, which will draw from some of the dirtiest generation mixes in the US, highlights the sway of low-cost energy, misplaced tax incentives, and a corresponding lack of commitment to clean energy.”

Not mincing words, Greenpeace called the area, “North Carolina’s dirty data triangle: Facebook, Google and Apple.”

Greenpeace continued their pressure by publishing a spreadsheet containing Company Data Center and Estimates of Power Demand. The power-usage statistics compiled by Greenpeace regarding the Apple, Facebook, and Google data centers in North Carolina indicated all three had the following power-source mix:

  • Coal: 61.5%
  • Nuclear: 38%
  • Renewable: 3.6%

Apple goes green

At first, Apple disagreed with the Greenpeace numbers. However, along with Facebook and Google, Apple reversed course, committing to renewable energy in a big way. For example, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson, now vice president of Apple Environmental Initiatives, in this July 2014 Guardian YouTube video spoke about the use of renewable power at the Maiden data center. She said, “On any given day, 100 percent of the data center’s needs are being generated by solar power and fuel cells.”

Greenpeace noticed the change. In fact, all three members of the “Dirty Data Triangle” garnered a “much improved” status in the Greenpeace April 2014 report Clicking Clean: How Companies are Creating the Green Internet.

Duke Energy’s solar build-out

Duke Energy’s announcement about adding more solar-power generation should come as good news to Greenpeace as well. The solar-farm build-out will consist of three company-owned solar facilities and the purchase of long-term power-leases from several independent North Carolina solar farms. The solar farms to be built are:

  • Warsaw Solar Facility, Duplin County (65 megawatts)
  • Elm City Solar Facility, Wilson County (40 megawatts)
  • Fayetteville Solar Facility, Bladen County (23 megawatts)

The three facilities will have a total solar capacity of 128 megawatts. The Warsaw solar farm is the largest solar photovoltaic system east of the Mississippi River. The independent North Carolina solar farms that signed agreements with Duke Energy are:

  • Bladen County (48 megawatts developed by Innovative Solar Systems)
  • Richmond County (48 megawatts developed by FLS Energy)
  • Scotland County (20 megawatts developed by Birdseye Renewable Energy)
  • Cleveland County (19 megawatts developed by Birdseye Renewable Energy)
  • Beaufort County (15 megawatts developed by Element Power US)

The purchased solar power totals 150 megawatts giving Duke Energy a total solar capacity of 278 megawatts in North Carolina. “This is Duke Energy’s largest single announcement for solar power and represents a 60-percent increase in the amount of solar power for our North Carolina customers,” said Rob Caldwell, senior vice president, Distributed Energy Resources. “We are bringing large amounts of renewable energy onto our system in the most cost-effective way possible.”

Last word

It has been an interesting story to follow, and moving three power-hungry data centers to renewable energy seems like a win for the environment and all of us.