Image: The first phase of Qcells' $2.5 billion investment in U.S. solar manufacturing was the now-complete expansion of its plant in Dalton, Georgia / Credit: Qcells North America
In a groundbreaking partnership, Microsoft has inked an extensive eight-year agreement with the largest solar panel manufacturer in the United States, Qcells. The aim? To supply Microsoft with a whopping 12GW of solar panels, a move to significantly bolster the nation's solar electricity grid.
To put this into perspective, this colossal addition represents roughly one-third of the total solar power injected into the US electrical grid throughout 2023, as per data from the Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood Mackenzie. These cutting-edge panels will find their home in sprawling solar farms strategically constructed by Microsoft to offset the energy demands of its ever-expanding data centre empire. Remarkably, they'll be capable of generating electricity to power a staggering 1.8 million households.
This is not the first collaboration between Microsoft and Qcells. Previously, the tech giant committed to purchasing 2.5GW of solar power from Qcells over an unspecified period. Beyond the panels themselves, Qcells, hailing from South Korea, provides invaluable engineering, procurement, and construction services, further solidifying this partnership. To fuel this ambitious endeavor, Qcells is investing a substantial $2.5 billion into establishing new solar factories in the rural landscapes of Georgia.
As for the financial intricacies of this alliance, they remain shrouded in secrecy, undisclosed to the public.
This partnership isn't just about business; it's also about safeguarding against potential supply chain disruptions. Bobby Hollis, Vice President of Energy at Microsoft, emphasized that this collaboration will expedite the completion of solar projects. The agreement stipulates an annual supply of approximately 1.5GW of modules through 2032, highlighting the commitment to scalability. Hollis explained, "We have to make sure what we're doing can be done at a large scale."
Microsoft has set an ambitious target to power all its electricity consumption with renewables by 2025. As of August, the company had already secured contracts for over 13.5GW of solar, wind, or other renewable energy sources across 16 different markets. Hollis acknowledged the competitive landscape in renewable energy procurement, stating, "There are a lot of players competing for strong development assets, and we have to get involved much earlier."
The first half of 2023 witnessed over 1,000 procurement deals signed by corporations worldwide. However, many corporate-backed projects in the US have faced obstacles, including tariffs on panels imported from China and permitting delays for grid interconnections needed for solar and wind farms.
"Supply chains can become a bottleneck," Hollis said. "We have to make sure that when surprises happen, we can still make our commitment."
Notably, the Qcells collaboration is non-exclusive, meaning Microsoft could seek panels from alternative sources if necessary. Similarly, Qcells is actively exploring similar relationships with other customers, as noted by Jihyun Kim, Executive Vice President of Qcells USA.
What makes this deal even more remarkable is its alignment with tax incentives outlined in the Inflation Reduction Act, aiming to stimulate domestic solar manufacturing. Qcells' investments in Georgia and Washington state claim the crown as the largest in the US solar industry. Qcells proudly boasts a significant share of US solar panel shipments, producing approximately 5GW of panels and solar components annually in Georgia.
In terms of environmental responsibility, Qcells takes the lead by producing "sustainably made" solar panels. They're seeking certification under the EPEAT for Solar program, which guides federal agencies in purchasing low-carbon products. Moreover, Qcells' panels are fabricated using hydropower in Washington state, setting them apart from most other manufacturers still reliant on coal. The company is also making its steel frames lighter for solar installations to reduce material consumption. Kim emphasized the importance of future recycling efforts for the panels, which Qcells fully supports.
This groundbreaking partnership between Microsoft and Qcells exemplifies their commitment to renewable energy and represents a significant step towards a more sustainable future for all.