Apple's supply chain is eating up clean energy

Apple
Ibiden, a component supplier outside Nagoya, Japan, maintains a floating solar photovoltaic facility to power 100 percent of its manufacturing.

Apple is having little trouble getting its manufacturing partners, including two of its largest suppliers, Foxconn and Taiwan Semiconductor, to use clean energy — at least for the equipment needed to create and produce Apple’s products.

Less than four years after the technology giant launched its ambitious supply chain clean energy program, more than 44 are on board. And interest is picking up: The company added 21 partners in the past year alone.

Those organizations, ranging from components makers to assemblers to enclosure specialists, together plan to procure more than 4 gigawatts of solar and wind capacity by 2020. Indeed, the total is closer to 5 GW. Reaching that milestone means Apple already has exceeded its original goal (PDF) of getting suppliers to commit to 4 GW. Ultimately, it would like to see its entire supply chain using clean energy.

For context, 4 GW is roughly one-third the energy used across Apple’s manufacturing supply chain, said Lisa Jackson, vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives at Apple. About 74 percent of Apple's footprint is related to manufacturing.

In its latest supplier responsibility report, Apple doesn't divulge exactly how many suppliers it works with, but in 2018 it conducted 770 assessments of facilities in more than 30 countries — representing about 93 percent of its spending on suppliers.

"We have felt for a long time that clean energy is good for business," Jackson told GreenBiz, describing the motivation for Apple's program. "In each of these cases, we have worked with the company to ensure that its business will do fine, and in some cases do better."

Some of the latest program additions are benefiting from a $300 million clean energy fund Apple created last year specifically to spur development of wind and solar projects in China, Jackson said. That fund (a separate but related program) aims to add one more GW of capacity in that country by 2021. Its aim is to help suppliers pool their procurement power, so that even the smallest organizations in its manufacturing chain have an opportunity to transition to clean energy for their Apple-related activities.

China is obviously a big focus, but the suppliers participating in Apple’s clean energy supplier initiative also have footprints in France, India, Japan, the Netherlands, the United States and Vietnam. 

Apple reached its own 100 percent renewable energy milestone around this time last year: The electricity consumed by all of its retail stores, data centers and its massive headquarters in Cupertino, California, has been offset by its substantial direct investments in projects around the world.

Many of those investments have been funded by the $2.5 billion Apple raised through two green bond issues. That money has been completely allocated to 40 projects, many of them in clean energy such as its solar rooftops in Japan, but a portion has gone to support Apple’s work on operational changes in the recycling of materials (that is, robots such as Daisy and Liam) and closed-loop processes for making its products, Jackson said.

Among them are the innovations that helped Apple create the alloy for its first Macintosh notebook enclosure made entirely out of recycled aluminum last fall. Money from the bonds also went to an aquifer replenishment project in Oregon, according to the company's latest environmental report.

Will Apple issue more green bonds in the future? Jackson isn’t committing one way or another. "There’s more great stuff to come," she said.