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Trash-powered cloud: Apple taps landfill biogas for data center

Apple discloses that the fuel cells at its North Carolina data center will run on biogas captured from landfills, part of its plan to operate using 60 percent on-site renewable energy.


To make its data center greener, Apple will be getting energy from old garbage.

The company plans to power the fuel cells at its Maiden, N.C., data center with biogas from landfills, according to a regulatory filing spotted by Data Center Knowledge.

The filing also indicates that Bloom Energy will supply the 4.8 megawatts worth of fuel cells that will partly power the data center. Yesterday, Bloom Energy CEO K.R. Sridhar told CNET that the company will supply its 200-kilowatt parking space-size Bloom Boxes to Apple.

By using biogas rather than natural gas to power its fuel cells, Apple is tapping what is considered by many a renewable resource, namely trash entombed in landfills. "The use of biogas, which displaces conventional natural gas, to generate electricity will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and smog-forming pollutants while also diversifying the fuel used to generate electricity," Apple states in its filing from earlier this month.

Fuel cells convert the energy in natural gas or biogas, which can also come from dairy or pig farms, into electric power through a chemical process that gives off minimal air pollutants. In addition to being less polluting and more efficient than the grid, fuel cells give companies a reliable source of on-site power, which is one of the main reasons companies invest in them.

Apple's North Carolina data center, which is now under construction, has become the target of attacks from Greenpeace, which launched a campaign to pressure cloud-computing providers to use more clean energy. In response, Apple said the Maiden facility will be one of the most efficient data centers, using about 20 megawatts of power at full steam. In addition to the biogas-powered fuel cells, the data center will have a huge 20-megawatt solar array.

To get biogas, Apple will need to procure it from a special supplier. The organic matter in landfills gives off methane (the primary ingredient of natural gas) as it decomposes, but that captured gas has to be cleaned and upgraded so that it's indistinguishable from natural gas. The biogas that Apple buys will be inserted and mixed into the natural gas pipeline, according to the filing.

A number of Bloom Energy customers in California, including eBay and NTT America, are already buying biogas to run their fuel cells. But Apple's data center will be one of the largest corporate fuel cell installations. It is expected to be operating by this summer.