Apple to pay for construction of NV Energy solar array

Apple wants a bite of Nevada’s solar power industry.

The latest integrated-resource filing from power company NV Energy shows that the computer giant plans to pay for construction of the Fort Churchill Solar Array, an 18-megawatt photovoltaic solar plant in Yerington, south of the data center Apple is building outside Reno.

Apple also would pay for the electricity the plant produces, though it probably wouldn’t use all of the power itself. According to the proposal, the plant would have no pricing effect on residential ratepayers. It is the first project proposed under a new program that lets customers go greener than state portfolio standards require.

“We’re excited to be in partnership with Apple on a new solar energy project, the first project under our new Green Energy Program,” Michael Yackira, president and CEO of NV Energy, said in a statement. “This program allows customers such as Apple to choose to have a greater proportion of their energy coming from renewables than the law requires, without having a cost impact on our other customers.”

In a statement, Apple also showed its enthusiasm for the project.

“All of Apple’s data centers use 100 percent renewable energy, and we are on track to meet that goal in our new Reno data center using the latest in high-efficiency concentrating solar panels. This project will not only supply renewable energy for our data center but also provide clean energy to the local power grid, through a first-of-its-kind partnership with NV Energy.

“When completed, the 137-acre solar array will generate approximately 43.5 million kilowatt hours of clean energy, equivalent to taking 6,400 passenger vehicles off the road per year,” Nick Leahy, a spokesman for Apple, said in the statement.

Several key trends coalesce in the proposal, which the state Public Utilities Commission would need to approve.

First, the agreement reflects growing demand for green power among high-tech titans. Data centers guzzle huge amounts of juice, and businesses want to cut back to burnish their environmental track records.

In 2007, Google committed to going carbon-neutral, and in 2012, eBay said it would use oxide fuel cells to power expansion of its Salt Lake City data center. And when Apple announced a 500,000-square-foot data center in Maiden, N.C., in May 2012, company officials said they would build 40 megawatts of solar power to operate it. Apple also uses or plans to use renewables in data centers in California and Oregon.

On top of signaling a green-power revolution in the data-center industry, the proposal heralds interest among state regulators and utilities in encouraging renewables. In fact, Nevada is behind the curve: It is the 47th state to allow such arrangements, which allow companies to choose higher electricity rates than regulators have set to promote green-energy construction.

Apple is the first customer under NV Energy’s Green Energy Program, which lets big companies contract with the utility to build a power plant to offset their specific use. (An option for smaller users lets them add a premium to their bill to buy renewables.)

According to the integrated-resource plan, a triennial filing that outlines where NV Energy gets its power, Apple would initially own the plant, and NV Energy would lease, operate and maintain it. NV Energy would buy the plant after five years.

The deal is groundbreaking in its own way: While other states offer special rates to build or buy power from green plants, the Apple project may be the first generating station jointly operated by business customer and utility.

The solar array’s construction cost is confidential, but Apple will take on all costs and risks. It also will get credit for the plant’s contributions to the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

The power will flow onto NV Energy’s Northern Nevada grid, where it will flow where needed. The idea for Apple is to use solar power to offset the electricity load its 90,000-square-foot data center adds to the grid.

NV Energy’s Green Energy Program isn’t available in Southern Nevada. The utility and state regulators want to see how the initiative works up north before they offer it down south.

The Public Utilities Commission should have a decision in the case in the fall.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@review journal.com or 702-380-4512. Follow @J_Robison1 on Twitter.