How Other World Computing became a renewable energy leader
Not content with just upgrading old Macs, OWC has also become a net producer of renewable energy.
Nowadays, it's almost become mundane for companies to announce they are going 100% renewable. From Organic Valley to Anheuser-Busch InBev, and from Google to Lego, not only are such announcements proliferating, but the companies are also often reaching their targets many years early.
This wasn't always the case, however. Some companies have been well ahead of the curve in terms of pushing for 100% renewables. Other World Computing (aka OWC, aka MacSales.com) has long been a leader in upgrade and expansion products for Mac and iOS devices, selling everything from used laptops and iPads to specialist accessories and memory upgrades. But alongside breathing new life into old macs, they've also been pushing hard on the sustainability front, installing both a used 500kWh wind turbine, as well as large solar arrays at several of their campuses. They are now a net producer of energy, and one of the largest commercial producers of renewable energy in the state of Illinois.
CEO Larry O'Connor tells me that energy efficiency and renewables are just a logical extension of the company's core offering:
"From its very beginning, OWC has always sought to maximize resource use. Initially, this was in the technology and services we offered: We make computers go further and perform better. People will buy a brand new computer when you can upgrade your old computer and have it run circles around the old set up. But as we grew, and started to explore building our own facility, it made sense to get serious about efficiency and renewables too."
This initial foray started in the mid-2000s, as the company looked at building new, larger facilities. That's when OWC took the opportunity to invest in long-term efficiency, installing geothermal heating and cooling, high efficiency lightbulbs, daylighting, permeable paving instead of asphalt, as well as other measures which helped the campus achieve LEED Platinum status from the Green Building Certification Institute. The goal was not only to cut energy bills (which they have by 30-40%), but to create a healthier, more productive work environment too.
In 2009, the company took a step further by delving into wind:
"We were interested in starting to produce our own power, and it just so happened that many of the early wind farms in Europe were upgrading to newer, more powerful turbines. So we were able to purchase an older generation 500kW Vestas wind turbine and install it on campus."
That 194 foot turbine—combined with the aggressive efficiency measures already taken—turned OWC into the first manufacturer/distributor in the U.S. to become 100% powered by on-site wind. In fact, it turned OWC's main campus from a net consumer of energy to a net producer, cranking out 73,000kWh of electricity in November of 2015, compared to the 49,000kWh of electricity that the campus consumed. That said, the company was far from done. In 2014, they installed a solar array at their Austin, Texas, campus that's rated to produce 60,000 kWh per year (Larry thinks it's the largest array in downtown Austin), and in 2015 they added a 265,000kWh/per year array in Woodstock too. And because the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow, the company contracts with a wind energy producer to supply any electricity they need during slumps in their own production.
Disclosure: These numbers have been updated to clarify production numbers and capacity factor. I have a query out to OWC for further clarification/confirmation.
Interestingly, because the company has been so successful at producing renewables—and because Illinois does not have net metering for commercial producers—OWC is now faced with an excess of energy that it has to sell for much less than what they buy. That's leading Larry and his team to consider other ways to utilize that energy:
"We're exploring options for energy storage. Battery technology is advancing rapidly, but they also have their own environmental impact—so we're trying to make sure we get in at the right time to maximize the benefit of whatever we end up installing. We have our eye on some innovative companies who are doing good things with battery management to extend their lifespan, but I'm also really enthusiastic about the potential for flywheel technology. We're close to pulling the trigger on some form of storage, but we're still weighing our options."
Larry is also looking at some other fascinating developments in energy efficiency and heating and cooling, but those efforts are not quite ready for a public unveil. (We'll be sure to follow up in a later post.) Mostly, though, Larry is adamant that all of us, but particularly businesses, need to lift our eyes up from the focus on immediate returns, and start thinking instead about long-term value:
"There's a good ROI on most of what we've done, but it does tend to be expensive upfront. We need to think more about the impact of our investments over their entire lifespan—and to take into account environmental and social costs too. Just as there's no reason we can't build computers that last, and upgrade and enhance them as and when we need to, there's also no reason why we can't build buildings, energy systems and business models that will provide positive returns for many, many years to come."