Science Meets Business: Apple Fuel Cell Project Discussion

4.27.2012 Article, General, School News

When solid science meets thoughtful business strategy, sustainability can be the most effective. That’s why the energy industry is keeping a close eye on the Apple Fuel Cell Project in North Carolina

“As demand grows, why not push ourselves to as much as reasonably possible, supplement the existing infrastructure and replace retiring infrastructure and replace with facilities that run on solar, wind, and biomass,” said, Michael Youth, Counsel and Regulatory Advisor, North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA).

Youth was part of a panel presentation on the Apple Fuel Cell Project April 25 at the Wake Forest University Charlotte Center. Dan Rastler, Senior Manager with the Electric Power Research Institute and Richard Williams, Professor of Physics also participated. Dan Fogel, Wake Forest University Executive Professor of Strategy and Associate Director of the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability, moderated the panel.

The fuel cell project is the largest one in the country not built by an electric utility company. It is at the Apple’s data center in Maiden, North Carolina. The data center will also host a planned 20-megawatt solar farm, the biggest ever for the state.

Williams and Rastler both provided background of the technology for the audience, which was largely made up of people in the business sector.

“It’s really an exciting technology. There are a lot of opportunities to get involved in the value chain,” said Rastler. Fuel cells generate electricity through an electro-chemical process and are compared to batteries that give out power as long as they have a source of hydrogen. They are highly efficient, reliable and produce a lot of power. That’s essential for a company like Apple that needs high voltage to operate.

“I think that the most interesting thing was just to see how technology has shifted,” said Jenny Kichler (MBA ’12), who has a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering. “I think it’s only going to shift further, whether its fuel cells, solar, or whatever else.

Learning the science behind this emerging technology is important for those who want to be strategic leaders in sustainability.

“If you don’t know the foundation of what the business is you really can’t provide any value in regards to where the business should go,” said Desiree Mittman, Assistant Vice President at Wells Fargo (MBA ’12). “It gives you credibility.”

Youth suspects Apple’s decision to put the fuel cell project at its data center was fueled by corporate social responsibility rather than economics, but he sees it as positive for the state.

“NCSEA sees Apple’s concept as moving our power system in the right direction,” said Youth. “There are practical questions about how to marry Apple’s concept with our state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency portfolio standards.”

Those standards are collectively known as the Reps Law. The law requires electric service providers to meet a portion of their overall demand through renewables based generation and energy efficiency measures. The Reps Law also comes with compliance credits, which Youth says is moving North Carolina’s power system in a more sustainable direction.

Apple has said it will make landfill gas the farm’s primary fuel. Off-site bio gas will be injected into the natural gas pipelines for use at the Apple facility. Among the issues that concerns NCSEA, is making sure that the off-site gas isn’t earning Reps credits in more than one place.

“We want to make sure there isn’t double counting going on,” said Youth. But with due diligence he says, North Carolina can use the Apple opportunity to create an environment where other companies will follow the computer giant’s lead, furthering the state’s stake in the energy industry.

“If we can have that happen we will have taken a step to making our power system more secure more resilient and more prosperous.”