Call it savvy public relations or plain good investing, but Apple is becoming a solar-power developer in China.
News Thursday that the Cupertino, Calif.-based company is partnering with SunPower., a major U.S. solar-panel maker, to build two solar power plants in China’s southwestern Sichuan province, highlights Apple’s attempts to offset its growing carbon footprint in China, where it is expanding at a rapid pace.
Although financial terms weren’t disclosed, SunPower said Thursday that Apple will co-own the projects, which have the combined capacity of 40 megawatts.
Apple has previously said it wants to be carbon neutral everywhere it operates, but that admirable goal is considerably absent in China, where the bulk of its products are made. Until now, unhappiness over air pollution mainly has been directed at the Chinese government, but Apple — already under fire over labor and customer-support issues –could become a major target. Initiatives like these could go a long way toward making sure its image in China remains favorable.
Apple tends to be financially involved in clean-energy projects only when they provide electricity for its operations. Apple and SunPower, for example, have partnered together in the U.S. to develop six solar power plants, all of which provide at least some power to Apple’s facilities.
In this case, however, Apple’s solar plants are being built in Sichuan’s remote Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefectures, far from Apple’s corporate offices, retail stores or manufacturing partners. The region is known for its rolling grasslands, where herders take yaks and sheep to graze, and where multi-colored Tibetan prayer flags are strung up along the slopes of hills.
In an interview on Thursday with China’s official Xinhua news agency, Apple’s vice president of environmental initiatives, Lisa Jackson, said the solar plants will be located in grasslands primarily used for raising yaks. Ms. Jackson, who was previously head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Apple will take care to minimize the impact of construction on the environment. An Apple spokeswoman said Friday in an email that Apple and its local partners won’t use cement to install solar panels or dig trenches for wires during construction.
Apple has been expanding quickly in China as it attempts to go after the country’s burgeoning middle class. The company currently has 21 retail stores in mainland China and hopes to double that number by the end of next year. Although Apple’s latest efforts to produce clean energy in China might be a drop in the bucket when compared with amount of fossil fuels consumed by its manufacturing partners, Ms. Jackson told Xinhua that the company hopes to lead by example for its more than 330 suppliers.
Apple’s latest projects join a wave of new solar farms under construction in western China. Solar-panel makers, Chinese policy banks and other clean-energy developers are all piling into the business after China revived its solar industry amid the country’s ambitious targets to add as much as 18 gigawatts of solar-power capacity by the end of this year.