The primary reason for Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn’s acquisition of Sharp, the struggling electronics giant, is the iPhone supplier’s desire to begin producing high-end smartphone screens, in particular the organic light-emitting diodes that will be used by the next generation of Apple devices. But there’s another driver of the $3.5 billion deal as well: Foxconn, previously best-known in the West for employee suicides and toxic water pollution, wants to become a leader in China’s clean-energy revolution.
Sharp first started making solar panels in 1959, and in the early 2000s was the world’s largest producer in the volatile industry. Since then it has been eclipsed by panel makers in China, and its energy solutions unit lost $45 million in the fourth quarter of 2015. It’s not entirely clear what will become of Sharp’s solar business under Foxconn control. But Sharp has been dabbling in related energy technologies for years, such as energy management devices and energy storage systems. And it’s clear that Foxconn’s enigmatic CEO Terry Gou intends to bolster Foxconn’s energy business—both in supplying clean energy for its own operations and developing solar projects overseas.
Last year SBJ Cleantech, the joint venture between Foxconn, Japan’s SoftBank, and Indian conglomerate Bharti Enterprises signed an agreement to build two gigawatts of solar power capacity in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The three companies also recently announced plans to invest $20 billion in India’s renewable energy market, primarily solar projects.
Foxconn is also joining with its number-one customer, Apple, to develop renewable sources for the energy its factories use in China. By 2018, Foxconn plans to install 400 megawatts of solar power capacity in China, enough to offset the carbon emissions from its mainland operations. “Harnessing renewable energy is a key pillar in our social and environmental responsibility strategy,” said Gou. If its clean energy ambitions pan out, Foxconn could become an unlikely poster child in China’s national drive to replace coal-fired power plants with renewables.