What’s Apple up to now in Maiden, North Carolina?

April 5, 2012, 3:42 PM UTC

A giant solar array? An huge fuel cell facility? A second 500,000 sq. ft. data center?

Click to enlarge.

I’m not sure I buy the main reason Jefferies’ Peter Misek gave today for raising his Apple (AAPL) price target to $800 from $699: His “increased confidence” Apple is going to release the much-rumored iTV in the fourth quarter of 2012.

My own confidence that Apple is going to get into the television manufacturing business is roughly equivalent to my confidence that it’s preparing to market a 7.85-inch iPad. Which is to say, I haven’t got a clue.

But I think Misek is definitely on to something when he talks about the big changes underway at the site of Apple’s data center in Maiden, N.C.

“Based on our analysis of building permits and satellite images,” he writes, “we believe Apple is set to double the size of its already massive North Carolina data center. Apple has two adjacent tracts of land in Maiden, North Carolina. Also, Apple has filed to build a 20MW solar array, the largest end-user owned array in the U.S., and a 5MW fuel cell facility.”

Photo: Jeff Willhelm for the Charlotte Observer

Why am I a believer? For one thing, I’ve seen the pictures, both the on-the-ground photograph printed Tuesday in the
Charlotte Observer
, and the “satellite” (they’re actually shot from airplanes) images on Google Maps. (Click here to monitor the progress.)

Moreover, unlike its plans for future products — about which it stays famously mum — Apple actually talks about this stuff. See, for example, the Apple and the Environment report posted on its website in February:

Our goal is to run the Maiden facility with high percentage renewable energy mix, and we have major projects under way to achieve this — including building the nation’s largest end user-owned solar array and building the largest nonutility fuel cell installation in the United States. (emphasis ours)

This fuel cell facility is a big deal. According to the Observer, its 24 modules will generate 4.8 megawatts at an enormously expensive estimated cost of $6.7 million per megawatt.

“That’s a huge vote of confidence in fuel cells,” James Warner, policy director of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association in Washington, told the Observer.

Bottom line: Whatever Apple is building in Maiden, it’s big and it’s green. Whether its purpose in life is to pipe content to millions of Apple-branded TV sets, however, is an open question.