BEIJING – The Biden administration’s solar energy ambitions are running up against complaints that the global industry depends on Chinese raw materials that could be produced through forced labor.
One big obstacle is polysilicon, which is used to make photovoltaic cells for solar panels. Global industry derives 45% of its supply from Xinjiang, the northwestern region where the ruling Communist Party is accused of mass incarceration of minorities and other abuses. Other parts of China provide 35%. Only 20% comes from the United States and other producers.
In Xinjiang, more than a million Uyghurs and other members of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups have been forced into detention camps, according to foreign researchers and governments. The authorities are accused of the forced sterilization of minorities and the destruction of mosques.
Chinese officials reject accusations of abuse and say the camps are intended for vocational training aimed at economic development and deterrence of radicalism.
US and Chinese solar suppliers have pledged to avoid suppliers who may resort to forced labor. However, it is not clear whether they can meet growing demand without Xinjiang, where Beijing will not allow independent workplace inspections.
The biggest manufacturers all use raw materials from Xinjiang and have “a high risk of forced labor in their supply chains,” according to a May 14 report by researchers Laura T. Murphy and Nyrola Elimaat of British Sheffield Hallam University .
The possibility of forced labor “is a problem,” Kerry told US lawmakers last week. He cited “solar panels which we believe are produced in some cases by forced labor.”
Western governments have imposed travel and financial restrictions on Chinese officials accused of abuse. The US government has banned imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang, citing concerns about forced labor.
The administration was considering whether to extend the ban to solar panels and raw materials from Xinjiang, Kerry said. He said he did not know the status of this review.
The problem is the government’s “labor transfer” program, which places workers in Xinjiang in companies.
âMany Aboriginal workers are unable to refuse or quit these jobs,â their report says. He says the programs “amount to a forced transfer of populations and enslavement”.
Murphy and Elimaat said they found 11 companies engaged in forced labor transfers from Uyghurs and other minorities and 90 Chinese and foreign companies whose supply chains are affected. They said manufacturers must make “meaningful changes” if they are to avoid suppliers who use forced labor.
Murphy and Elimaat say the world’s largest manufacturers of solar equipment – JinkoSolar Inc., LONGi Green Energy Technology Co., Trina Solar Energy Co. and JA Solar Holdings Co. – may have forced labor in their supply chains.
Trina and JinkoSolar also have “possible labor transfers” to factories, while a JinkoSolar facility sits in an industrial park that also has a prison, according to Murphy and Elimaat.
JinkoSolar, LONGi, Trina and JA Solar did not immediately respond to questions about the report.
At the same time, a tight supply due to increased demand has propelled polysilicon prices by more than 100% since January to a 9-year high.
The market is “already under-supplied,” Johannes Bernreuter, director of Bernreuter Research in Germany, said in an email.
China is both the world’s largest market for solar equipment and the largest producer.
This reflects multibillion-dollar government spending over the past two decades to promote solar energy. The ruling party wants to reduce dependence on imported oil and gas, which it sees as a security weakness, and take the lead in an emerging industry.
A glut of supply as hundreds of Chinese manufacturers rushed into the industry 15 years ago has driven prices down. This hurt Western competitors, but accelerated the adoption of solar in the United States and Europe.
Seven of the world’s top 10 producers are Chinese. Canadian Solar Inc. is registered in Canada but its production is in China. Hanwha Q-Cells from South Korea is # 6.
The only US producer in the top 10, First Solar Inc., is not exposed to Xinjiang’s polysilicon supply chain because the Tempe, Arizona company uses thin-film technology that does not require polysilicon.
Suppliers serving the U.S. and European markets can likely get enough polysilicon outside of Xinjiang, Bernreuter said. But he said supplies could be cut if other countries impose the same requirement.
Potential non-Chinese suppliers include Germany’s Wacker Chemie AG and the Malaysian branch of South Korean company OCI Co.
However, these companies also buy polysilicon from Xinjiang’s largest supplier, Hoshine Silicon Industry Co., according to Murphy and Elimaat. They cited documents which they said show Hoshine, also known as Hesheng, involved in the “transfer of labor.”
Hoshine did not immediately respond to questions about the report.
According to their business group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, US solar equipment vendors have been trying since last year to overhaul supply chains to eliminate problematic suppliers.
In February, 175 companies, including the American arms of JinkoSolar, LONGi, Trina and JA Solar, signed a pledge to oppose the use of forced labor by their suppliers.
Potential changes are expected to be made by the end of June, according to group president Abigail Ross Hopper.
âIf their customers and the US government demand it, they will have to act quickly,â Ross Hopper told PV Magazine USA in February.
Bernreuter warned that the Chinese government “may interfere” with an overhaul, although there is no sign that this has happened.
Sheffield Hallam University report: www.shu.ac.uk/helena-kennedy-centre-international-justice/research-and-projects/all-projects/in-broad-daylight
Bernreuter research: www.bernreuter.com
Association of Solar Energy Industries: www.seia.org