Apple to Bring SunPower's C7 Solar Technology to China

Last April Apple announced that all of its US facilities, and 87 percent of its worldwide operations, were completely powered by renewable energy, which showed that Apple was finally getting serious about its Sasquatch-sized energy footprint.

This wasn't always the true. In 2011, Greenpeace released a report called “How Dirty Is Your Data?” It graded each Internet firm on its cloud operations, and slut-shamed Apple with the dubious honor of being a serial climate offender clinging to an embarrassing reliance on coal. Social media insured that this gotcha moment viraled out of control. Not long afterwards, Apple decided to power all its operations from renewables like wind, biogas, hydro, and solar in the future.

And the chastened company quickly delivered. Last year Greenpeace issued another report card, and Apple finally shed its coal stigma.

Energy hogs

This was more than just a symbolic milestone. After all, data centers are some of the biggest electricity hogs in the world, snarfing up two percent of all the electricity generated in the US, which is expected to triple over the next decade.

To keep its transformation going, this year Apple developed several new solar projects in the US.  California-based SunPower added 90 megawatts of high-powered glass to the company's data centers in North Carolina, Arizona, and Nevada. Apple's solar field in Yerington, NV, uses SunPower's newest C7 technology, where modules absorb intense sunlight from parabolic mirrors. “It’s the latest and greatest,” Rob Wilson, the project manager for SunPower, told Wired. This project was the first utility-scale C7 buildout (the only other installation was a tiny one-megawatt demo at Arizona State University).

While that sounds like significant progress, Apple's offices, data centers and retail stores represent only 1 percent of its massive carbon footprint. As the company stated in its 2015 Environmental Responsibility Report:

 We’ve made real progress in reducing the impact of the things we control directly—our offices, retail stores, and products. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to reduce the carbon footprint of our supply chain. And it’s our responsibility to lead that effort.

Going to the source

It was time for Apple to track down the CO2 leaking out of its sprawling supply chain. According to the Economist, a typical iPad not only contained parts from American, Japanese, South Korean, and European suppliers, there were 150 far-flung suppliers in all. And they were all spewing CO2.

So finally last week, Apple announced that it would begin deflating the remaining 99% of its carbon bubble by building 200 megawatts of new solar power in China.

"Climate change is one of the great challenges of our time, and the time for action is now," Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, said in the press release. “The transition to a new green economy requires innovation and ambition."

The company will start working with suppliers in China, including iPhone maker Foxconn, by building an extra 2 gigawatts of solar, wind and hydropower projects. Foxconn will construct 400 megawatts of solar by 2018, committing to generate as much renewable energy as its Zhengzhou factory uses in final production of the iPhone.

Once completed, the projects will eliminate 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gases between now and 2020, which is like taking 4 million cars off the road for one year.

SunPower's new technology

This latest plan follows the completion of Apple's first successful solar project in China, which was also built by SunPower. At 40-megawatts, it generates more energy than all of Apple's 19 corporate offices and 21 retail stores.

The plant uses SunPower's concentrated photovoltaic, or CPV, a promising technology that hasn't gained much traction in the US, but with Apple's help, SunPower's getting a clear shot in China.

SunPower has long touted that its C7 technology can be very cost-effective. By combining parabolic mirrors and SunPower's high-efficiency Maxeon solar cells, it reduces the amount of real estate a project sits on, drastically lowering the levelized cost of energy.

And China is becoming SunPower's fastest-growing market, CEO Tom Werner said.

Three gigawatts

“We’ll get a lot of business in China,” Werner said. “It will be our fastest-growing region in the next five years, by far."

For SunPower, its relationship with Apple boosts the status of the second-biggest US solar maker in the world’s largest solar market.

“When we finance our projects in China, having Apple co-own those projects allows us then to get the rest of the financing in a very economical way,” Werner said. “It’s a stamp of approval from the most respected brand on the planet.”

SunPower also aims to develop 3 gigawatts of solar projects on its own in a joint venture with partners Tianjin Zhonghuan Semiconductor Co., Sichuan Development Holding Co., Leshan Electric Power Co., and Tianjin Tsinlien Investment Holding Co.

SunPower is also manufacturing cell receivers in Inner Mongolia. The company says the planned 300-MW plant already has three 50-MW production lines going. 

In a further sign of SunPower’s confidence in CPV in China, late last year the company said it would break ground on a 1-GW CPV manufacturing plant in the Philippines.

Will concentrated solar see better days?

Images: solar array, ASU