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As governments around the world tinker over how best to support solar energy, a number of large corporations have thrown their weight behind the renewable resource. These moves could potentially shift the momentum driving the solar industry away from the public sector and onto private enterprise. Solar energy makes up only 1% of the country's alternative energy production, but it's the fastest growing of all renewable energy forms, increasing by 67% since 2009, and some familiar names are now adding a major push.
The heat is on
Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) recently announced plans for a 100-acre, 20-megawatt solar array in North Carolina. Its size would rank in the top 20 largest current solar projects in the country and supply 42 million kWh of energy each year. More important for consumers, Apple is already working on a renewable solution the biggest problem of the mobile age -- the dying phone. The company has filed a patent to make a solar-powered iPod and other related devices.
Warren Buffett also tossed his hat into the solar ring when MidAmerican Energy Holdings, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) recently agreed to buy a $2 billion, 550-megawatt solar farm in California from First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR ) . The project will be able to provide electricity for 160,000 homes, and comes with a long-term contract to sell power to California utility PG&E. MidAmerican has also purchased a 49% stake in another project with First Solar known as Agua Caliente, a 290 MW solar farm in Arizona.
Finally, IBM (NYSE: IBM ) has pushed the engineering bar with a 6,000-square-foot solar rooftop over its India Software Lab in Bangalore. While this project pales in size to those above, IBM wins points for its innovate ways of boosting efficiency by using water-cooling systems and cutting AC-DC conversion losses. The engineering is designed specifically to support the intense needs of data centers. With this kind of solar array, an organization could build a self-sustaining data center off the grid. IBM plans not just to use the new technology for itself but to sell it to clients.
Meanwhile, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , which once had grand plans to make renewable energy cheaper than coal, announced in November it was stepping away from its renewable project as well as from six others in effort to retrench its operations. Now, it seems, the search giant has moved its renewable strategy from R&D to deployment, investing another $94 million -- on top of a previous $850 million -- into four solar projects with a total of 88 Megawatts of capacity.
For the solar industry, which has struggled of late because of cutbacks in German feed-in tariffs and a supply glut, the burgeoning interest from these mega-cap companies could be just the beginning of many big investments to come.
Another approach that's boosting private solar development is a new financing system supported by companies like Google, U.S. Bancorp, and Citibank. The investment from those enterprises pays for homeowners to install solar panels, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but then the installer charges the homeowner for electricity. The homeowners still pay less than they would for traditionally sourced power, so all parties benefit.
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