By Valerie Volcovici and Julia Love
WASHINGTON/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Apple announced Wednesday it will build 200 megawatts of solar energy projects in China and work with local suppliers to source more renewable energy, its latest moves to green its Chinese supply chain amid criticism that its local partners are heavy polluters.
In addition to bringing on an additional 200 MW in northern, eastern and southern China, the tech giant said it will launch an initiative to "drive its manufacturing partners to become more energy efficient and to use clean energy for their manufacturing operations."
Apple said the 200 megawatts projects will produce the equivalent of the energy used by more by than 265,000 Chinese homes in a year.
As part of Wednesday's announcement, major Apple supplier Foxconn said it will build 400 MW of solar energy projects by 2018, starting in Henan province.
“These projects go beyond Apple’s operations in China to help our suppliers adopt clean renewable energy,” Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives, said in a statement.
The announcement comes months after Apple said it would build its first major solar energy project in China, two 20 MW solar farms in Sichuan province, with solar developer SunPower.
The company now says its China operations are "carbon neutral" because the solar installations produce more energy than is used at its offices and retail stores throughout the country.
Four years ago, Chinese environmental groups accused Apple of turning a blind eye as its suppliers polluted the country by emitting toxic gases and discharging heavy metal sludge, among other practices.
In the United States, Apple was criticized by environmental group Greenpeace in 2012 for relying too heavily on fossil-fuel-based energy to power its energy-hungry data centers.
On Wednesday, Greenpeace said the company had taken a "major step forward" in greening its supply chain.
"We hope that Samsung, Microsoft and other IT companies will follow their lead in manufacturing their cutting-edge devices with a 21st century energy supply," said Gary Cook, IT policy analyst at Greenpeace.
The programs will avoid over 20 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in China between now and 2020, according to Apple.
Apple has also taken steps to operate more cleanly in its home state of California. In February, the iPhone maker said it would buy about $850 million of power from a new California solar farm to cut its energy bill and supply electricity for its new campus in Silicon Valley as well as other offices and stores.
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; and Julia Love; Editing by Leslie Adler)