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Are Apple and Google in Race for North Carolina's 'Black Gold'?

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Apple, fuel cells, pig manure, and Google in rural North Carolina.

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MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL To support its iCloud and SIRI Voice recognition services, Apple (NYSE:AAPL) runs a data center in Maiden, NC, 40 miles northwest of Charlotte. That center is powered by 24 hydrogen fuel cells that produce 4.8 megawatts of power. Apple, which prides itself on the transparency of this project , has made it clear though the NC Renewable Energy Tracking System, that it will add 26 more fuel cells by January, upping its electricity production to 10 megawatts, enough to power 6,250 homes. In addition, the company is in the midst of building a 20-megawatt-producing solar panel array. According to Tina Casey of Talking Points Media's Idea Lab, "It looks like Apple could become the next tech giant to join the state's hog waste 'black gold' rush." The question is, why North Carolina?

A fuel cell converts chemical energy from a fuel source -- in Apple's case, natural gas (though this will be changing, and more on that to come) -- into electricity through a chemical reaction with an oxidizing agent, most commonly, and in this case, hydrogen. Energy efficiency for fuel cells is between 40% and 60%, though that figure increases to 85% if waste heat is captured. Fuel cells have been traditionally used in hugely expensive experiments (NASA was one of the first pioneers of the technology), but recently with decreasing costs, fuel cell development is growing: The global fuel cell industry boasted a compound annual growth rate of 83% during the period from 2009 to 2011. Despite this, fuel cell technology still occupies a relatively small sector of energy production. Through tax incentives, California offers companies to cover roughly half the cost of fuel cell production. In addition, the federal government offers a 30% tax credit to companies in the field. So why is the country's biggest fuel cell complex in North Carolina and not California?

First of all, the electrical system as a whole is very reliable in North Carolina and costs to industrial customers are about 30% lower than the national average. Secondly, the state is beautiful (full disclosure: I am a proud former resident of the state). But there may be something more interesting at play, that being, pig manure. One of the potential alternatives to natural gas that Apple is exploring is methane gas, a by-product that can be harvested from pig manure, which is plentiful in North Carolina (the state holds 14% of the nation's commercial swine population).

More interesting still, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is already researching the potential for using methane from pig manure as alternative energy, collaborating on a project with Duke University, Duke Energy, and a pig farm in Yadkinville, NC. The farm's 65-kilowatt turbine generates enough electricity to power the plant itself and five of Bryant's nine hog barns. Is this perhaps indicative of a race between Apple and Google to see who can tap the potential of pig manure first?

If Apple wants to qualify for NC's renewable energy credits, it will need to begin transferring to alternative energy. Its proposed massive solar panel facility will contribute to that, and I speculate that so will methane produced from pig manure. Extrapolating from North Carolina, perhaps other states with an abundance of energy-producing manure and lower-than-average energy costs (like Iowa) can expect to see interest from other tech giants and their fuel cells. With Apple behind this unprecedented fuel cell project, other companies are sure to follow.MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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