Apple's Love Affair With Solar Energy Could Mean Big Things Are Coming

An $850 million deal to buy solar energy is just the latest example of Apple's love for solar energy.

Travis Hoium
Travis Hoium
Feb 14, 2015 at 11:00AM
Energy, Materials, and Utilities

Apple will soon be buying energy from a First Solar power plant similar to this one. Image source: First Solar.

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) may soon be the largest single solar energy consumer in the world after it agreed to power its new headquarters, Silicon Valley offices, and stores with solar energy from 130 MW of solar built by First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR). This will add to at least 60 MW of solar projects currently powering Apple's iCloud datacenters in North Carolina and Nevada.

The move continues Apple's move to power more and more of its domestic operations with solar energy. In some ways it's a politically popular move, but it's one done in the name of security as well. The question is how far can this love affair between Apple and solar energy go? 

Even in urban centers, more and more companies are saving money by going solar. Image source: SunPower.

Apple's deal with First Solar
The agreement Apple and First Solar came to yesterday was a power purchase agreement in which Apple will purchase all of the electricity from a 130 MW section of a 280 MW power plant in Monterey County, California. The other 150 MW will go to energy to Pacific Gas & Electric. For the energy, Apple will pay $848 million, although the exact structure of the agreement wasn't made available. 

Apple won't actually have a power line running to the plant, instead feeding the energy into the grid and buying the net energy produced. But it's a symbolic move that's been made by Microsoft, Google, and others in an effort to buy clean energy. 

This is also the first deal Apple has done with First Solar, a leader in thin-film solar cells. In previous deals, Apple has dealt with SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR), the industry's efficiency leader. It's clear that Apple wants to work with industry and technology leaders and long-term may have more than just solar in a field on their mind. That's where Apple's solar ties could get really interesting. 

What's next for Apple and solar?
The inevitable question now is how far will Apple go into the solar business? It has moved quickly to get more energy for its operations from solar energy, but will solar energy ever be incorporated into Apple's actual products?

It's not as far fetched as it seems and for years there have been rumors that solar cells would somehow be included in Apple's devices. Apple has even filed patents around using solar power to charge Apple devices. I think we're at least a few years from this being a real possibility, but understanding the advantages and disadvantages of solar energy on a large scale may help Apple learn what's possible on a small scale. Here's what Apple could feasibly do.

First Solar's thin-film solar cells actually offer an interesting possibility for Apple. They could use a glass, or similar, sub-straight on the back of an iPhone or iPad to add a solar cell to electronic devices to passively add power.

SunPower's high efficiency cells would offer more power to devices but could be more difficult to integrate. Standard size cells could be laid out on devices and integrated into the shell or maybe more likely included in cases. If cells are modified to fit a device it could open up new possibilities. 

Apple's interest in solar has just begun
What's clear is that Apple has a big interest in solar energy and that interest is only growing. Data centers and now the company's new headquarters will be solar powered and I have to think it's only a matter of time before Apple's devices are as well.

The love affair between Apple and solar energy has just begun. I just wonder what they'll do next.