Microsoft forms ‘strategic alliance’ with solar energy manufacturer

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Microsoft just forged a strategic alliance with a major solar panel manufacturer to try and deliver on its clean energy goals. The deal comes as supply chain issues and labor abuse allegations make it increasingly difficult to deploy solar power in the US.

The plan is for solar heavyweight Qcell to provide more than 2.5 gigawatts of solar panels and related services to developers working with Microsoft. That’s enough to power some 400,000 homes, according to Microsoft, which hailed the partnership as a “first of its kind.”

Supply chain issues and labor abuse allegations make it increasingly difficult to deploy solar across the US

Since 2012, Microsoft has technically purchased enough clean energy to meet its electricity consumption. But that does not mean that the company’s activities always run on renewable energy. There just isn’t enough solar and wind connected to the grid yet, and renewables make up only 20 percent of the U.S. electricity mix.

Microsoft makes “power purchase agreements” with energy suppliers to encourage the development of new solar and wind projects. The goal is that by the end of the decade, Microsoft will be able to get its entire energy supply “from carbon-free sources on the networks where we operate.”

To make matters even more difficult, the solar energy industry is facing major supply chain kinks, especially in the US. Solar energy production is concentrated in China, which supplies about 80 percent of the world’s solar panels. That concentration makes the solar power supply chain more vulnerable to bottlenecks, a major one being allegations of forced labor in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The US blocked more than 1,000 shipments of solar energy components between June and October last year following an import ban from Xinjiang, Reuters reports. Those trade barriers have significantly slowed solar installations in the US.

Microsoft appears to be getting around that bottleneck by partnering with South Korea-based Qcells. Earlier this month, Qcell announced it would spend more than $2.5 billion to build a “full solar energy supply chain … from raw material to finished panels” in the US. It plans to build a new manufacturing facility in Georgia, where it also claims to operate the largest solar panel plant in the Western Hemisphere.

“As one of the world’s largest consumers of renewable energy, this work will help deliver more solar energy to the power grid more quickly,” Microsoft vice chairman and president Brad Smith said in a press release yesterday.

Microsoft could certainly use more clean energy on the grid as it struggles to reduce its climate pollution. In fact, the company’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by about 2.5 million metric tons in fiscal 2021 compared to the previous year, with sales of devices and cloud services increasing, according to the latest sustainability report.

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