Apple recently announced it has achieved complete reliance on alternative (“renewable”) energy sources for all its data centers, setting a high mark for other companies to strive for. But can the push for alternative power reach this end more generally, or is Apple an isolated case that’s unrealistic for the broader economy?
Cashing Out Apple’s Claim
Apple’s claim regarding its data centers doesn’t mean all its facilities use power directly from solar panels, wind turbines and so forth. This is not to fault Apple—constructing power-generation facilities for a large data center is beyond the capability of most companies. Even Apple’s Maiden, NC, data center still uses some grid power (which is largely coal based). Some of the energy in the company’s claim is “purchased”—but how exactly this cashes out, given the structure of the power grid, is uncertain. (If you “buy” wind power but still use coal power, what does that mean?)
Nevertheless, ignoring such details, a more important question is whether Apple should be a model for other companies—and even for consumers. Renewable energy has a checkered past sullied by government-funding debacles (think Solyndra), haranguing by environmental groups, scare tactics (particularly with regard to global warming) and so on. A world with no oil drilling (or subsequent spills), no coal mining and no emissions from burning such fuels certainly sounds wonderful, but reaching such a goal requires facing a number of challenges.
Can the Power Grid Handle Alternative Power Sources?
Most companies can’t afford to implement their own power-generation facilities. Even Apple isn’t relying exclusively on its own power, although it has made significant strides in this direction. Furthermore, for some companies—such as those in cities—space constraints alone can prohibit investment in power-generation equipment. Reliance on the grid, which is largely powered by central facilities and to a lesser extent distributed equipment (like residential or commercial solar panels) is thus the only option in many cases.
A large-scale move to alternative energy sources has at least one major problem with regard to the grid: most such sources provide intermittent power levels, at best. Solar, for instance, only generates electricity for half the day (and that’s being generous); wind can vary hour by hour or worse. The current grid, which is designed to handle a steady power level, could run into major problems if it suddenly switched to large amounts of these sources. Imagine a cloudy day that all of the sudden becomes clear, sunny and windy. Not only would the influx of energy cause potentially damaging power spikes, it could force more traditional power facilities (specifically, coal plants) to run much less efficiently.
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