Monday, March 5, 2012

Why Apple's solar data center is crucial for its future

This is a guest post by Joe Pawlikowski from

It appears that Apple is again gearing up for a big year. This week they will announce the newest iPad, which will surely draw rave reviews. They're also planning to release a flat-screen television this year, and apparently they have big plans for it. The TV service in particular will expand Apple's reach, but all of their products figure to draw huge consumer interest. Combined with a new iPhone launch later in the year -- one that could look quite unlike previous iPhones -- and Apple will distribute an enormous mass of products on the market. There's only one small problem with that.

They need data centers to power them.

When we think of how much gadgets cost, we typically think of the components. The processor costs X, the screen costs Y, the hard drive costs Z, etc. Yet there are many more factors for a tech company. Not only do they have to pay for research and development, but they have to plan big marketing campaigns. They have to pay everyone involved in the project. And they have to pay for the data centers that support the devices.

The cost of operating a data center is not cheap. According to the EPA (via GreenBiz), US data centers cost $4.5 billion to power -- in 2006. That was before even the iPhone was released. Since there are more data centers now, and since those data centers support more devices and services, the price has surely skyrocketed since then. Apple, which creates and distributions millions upon millions of electronic gadgets, has its work cut out for itself in terms of data center management.

While it won't make the kinds of headlines that the new iPad or the flatscreen TV will, Apple's new solar data center in North Carolina could be a big key to its future. It won't make a big difference right now -- it is still quite expensive to convert solar rays into usable energy. In that way, the solar plant could cost Apple money in the short run. It's in the long-term that it will make a difference in the bottom line.

Eventually it will become cheaper to convert solar rays into usable energy. The conversion cost has already come down in the last decade, and as technology advances it will get into a range where it becomes more viable. At that point, Apple, with a solar-powered data center already in place, will be at an advantage. They'll be running their data centers with renewable and, at that point, cheap energy. That will eventually reduce costs and make it easier to expand operations.

When Apple makes headlines, it's usually for a new product or service that changes the market. In this way, the news about the solar-powered data center didn't make its rounds in the way that the iPad news did. But in the end, solar technology could help Apple expand even further. By getting in at the ground level for renewable energy, not only are they setting themselves up for a low-cost future, but they're also setting an example for other tech companies. It's tough to make a mistake following in Apple's footsteps.

Joe Pawlikowski edits BBGeeks and other blogs around the web.