Top tech companies plug into renewable power

Microsoft, Google and Apple are among those tapping solar, wind and hydroelectric power sources

Microsoft is building a data center next to a Wyoming landfill in order to use its methane gas to power the facility.

Apple now uses a massive 100-acre solar energy farm to power its Maiden, N.C., data center.

And Google has placed data centers in Oklahoma and Iowa so they can plug into wind farms.

America's top tech companies are going green in a big way, so much so that the availability of clean energy resources is now a key consideration in where they locate corporate offices and data centers. The move is designed to save them millions of dollars in long-term energy costs.

"We believe energy is the future of our business," said Josh Henretig, director of environmental sustainability at Microsoft.

"Microsoft has increasingly transitioned from a software company to a services and devices company," said Henretig. "The services are largely based on our need for cloud [infrastructures] and, in turn, the energy that those clouds and data centers use. So we are absolutely focused on the role energy plays in our organization longer term."

Massive renewable growth

Over the past six years, the growth in wind farm deployments in the U.S. has been second only to gas-powered electrical plants.

According to the latest data, 6.8 gigawatts of wind power was added in the U.S. in 2011, a 31% increase over 2010. That 2011 jump brought the cumulative wind power capacity for the U.S. to 47 gigawatts, according to a study published by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The latest data from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) shows that the U.S. now has more than 6.4 gigawatts of installed solar electric capacity, enough power for more than a million households. And, while the numbers aren't in yet, 2012 was expected to be a record year for more growth, according to the SEIA.

Dan Shugar, an SEIA board member, said that when he first entered the solar energy industry 25 years ago as an electrical engineer, the world's collective solar arrays produced only about .03 gigawatts of power. Today, they produce 30 gigawatts (a gigawatt is a billion watts).

"That's a 1,000 times increase over my career. It's unstoppable," Shugar said.

The list of companies using and deploying renewable energy resources includes Intel, Kohl's, Staples, Wal-Mart, Ikea, McDonalds, Walgreens, Macy's, FedEx, Toyota and Lockheed Martin, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Solar arrays at Denver International Airport
Onsite solar power arrays are becoming more common and visible, like this one at the Denver International Airport that takes up seven acres and provides 2 million watts of power.

A greener Google

In 2011, the EPA awarded Google the Green Power Partner of the year award.

Google has pledged to reduce its carbon footprint to zero through energy efficiency and by purchasing carbon-free renewable electricity to power its data centers and corporate facilities.

Currently, a third of Google's energy consumption comes from renewable energy -- 20% from utility companies and 13% from wind and solar facilities owned by Google or a third party.

In 2007, Google constructed a 1.7-megawatt solar farm for its central facilities in Mountain View, Calif. The cost of that project, which has not been disclosed, was expected to produce return on investment (ROI) within seven years through cost savings. It's now on target to beat that projection and see ROI this year, according to Gary Demasi, Google's director of Global Infrastructure.

From this year forward, the solar power facility will continue to produce about 3 million kilowatt hours of power per year, saving the company in energy costs while reducing its carbon footprint.

In 2011, Google signed two 20-year contracts to purchase all the power from wind farms in Iowa and Oklahoma for two of its data centers in those states. The first contract was for 114 megawatts of wind generation from NextEra's Story County II facility in Iowa; the second was for 100.8 megawatts of wind generation from NextEra's Minco II facility in Oklahoma.

NextEra wind farm in Oklahoma (Source: NextEra)

Last year, Google signed a separate wind power purchase agreement with the Grand River Dam Authority to power the company's Mayes County, Okla., data center with 48 megawatts of wind energy from the Canadian Hills Wind project.

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