Solar energy enjoys a high reputation as a benign industry. It saves the planet by providing clean energy. But the industry has a dirty weakness: its key components rely heavily on Xinjiang, a region of China that has become synonymous with forced labor by Muslim minorities.
Over the past four years, China has detained more than one million people Detention facility network The entire Xinjiang region.Many such camps Including factory A place where Muslim minorities are forced to work. The solar industry absolutely relies on parts and materials imported from the region, where tight government monitoring makes it almost impossible for outside observers to assess whether people are working voluntarily. However, there are almost no alternative suppliers for the components required by the US solar industry.
This is a special problem of polycrystalline silicon. Polycrystalline silicon is a metallic gray crystal form of an indispensable element in the manufacture of solar cells, which can convert light into energy. In 2016, only 9% of solar-grade polysilicon in the world came from Xinjiang. But according to industry analyst Johannes Bernreuter (Johannes Bernreuter), by 2020, it will provide about 45% of the world’s supply.
At least one major Chinese polysilicon manufacturer has close ties to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a state-controlled paramilitary organization. Last year, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on the Corps for helping Beijing to detain Muslims on a large scale. The U.S. banned the production of cotton based on evidence that it was produced using forced labor.
The US solar industry faces a choice: ignore the risk of human rights violations or develop expensive new alternatives for an industry struggling to compete with more polluting forms of energy production.
Another major Chinese polysilicon producer stated that it has a relationship with “vocational school“In Xinjiang, this is a red flag because the Chinese government has long used this term as a euphemism for detention camps.
The organization’s general counsel, John Smirnow, said that the Solar Energy Industry Association, which represents US solar companies, opposes “condemned” human rights violations in Xinjiang and “encourages” companies to move their supply chains out of the region.
“We have no indication that solar energy is directly implicated,” he said, “but in light of the reports, we want to ensure that forced labor will never become part of the solar supply chain.”
But as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office, after promising to improve America’s clean energy infrastructure, the US solar industry faces a choice: ignore the risk of human rights violations or develop expensive new alternatives for an industry that is struggling to compete with it. More polluting forms of energy production.
China begins to dominate The global polysilicon industry afterwards Impose tariffs on polysilicon imports From the United States, South Korea and the European Union, and increased domestic production, Obviously in retaliation for tariffs imposed by the United States, Year 2014. China is also one of the world’s largest consumers of polysilicon, which means that many companies outside of China no longer want to compete, because exporting there is no longer cost-effective. In the following years, China’s polysilicon industry has flourished, not only in Xinjiang, but also in other regions such as Sichuan in the southwestern province.
“Most of the supply chain is concentrated in China, and most of the rest of Southeast Asia is in factories owned by Chinese companies,” Bernreuth said. “There are no big substitutes in the supply chain.”
But in recent months, products imported from Xinjiang have aroused the anger of American lawmakers.
At the last conference, delegates Considered A bill that should ban all commodities in the region, this legislation may be restored in an upcoming meeting.House bill special Targeted “Poverty Alleviation” Program This has caused Muslims in Xinjiang to move to work in factories and farms far from their hometowns.
“It is almost impossible to confidently assess the working conditions in Xinjiang.”
Since the end of 2016, the Chinese government has launched a campaign that includes mass detention, digital surveillance, indoctrination, and forced labor of approximately 13 million Muslim minorities in western Xinjiang, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others. Experts say , Non-Chinese people visiting Xinjiang are often closely monitored or escorted by the police, so it is difficult for companies to audit forced labor in their supply chains.
“It is almost impossible to confidently assess the working conditions in Xinjiang because it is almost impossible to get qualified assessors into the area. Then their ability to interview workers, especially Uyghur workers, is restricted due to surveillance,” Washington, DC Strategy and International Amy Lehr, director of the Human Rights Program of the Research Center and lead author A report Tell BuzzFeed News about forced labor in the area.
However, if the U.S. Customs and Border Protection suspects the use of forced labor, it already has the legal power to prohibit imports from the region.The agency intercepted a group of people from Xinjiang in July According to the report The expansion is carried out using prison labor. In December, CBP Seized goods Cotton and computer parts from Xinjiang. this week, It forbids Imported tomatoes and cotton products from the region in so-called “slave labor”.
“Even without a regional ban, solar companies are likely to be scrutinized by CBP for the forced labor risks associated with Xinjiang in the supply chain, because this issue is getting more and more attention,” Lehr said.
The research team Horizon Consulting stated in a report that polysilicon from Xinjiang often landed in the United States.
The report stated: “These commodities entered the United States from China directly or through indirect transshipment and processing, and were processed in several other countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam,” the report said, and concluded that “forced labor” The situation is widespread.” including “solar panels imported and installed in the United States.”
Forced labor is usually used for manufacturing jobs that do not require specialized skills. Some of these types of tasks are used in the production of polysilicon, such as pipes that decompose materials.
Industry experts said that if the United States does ban the import of polysilicon from China, American companies will have enough production capacity to make up for the shortfall, but they will face higher costs and other problems in the supply chain.
On the one hand, other components used in solar panels are also dominated by Chinese manufacturing. After the polysilicon is made, it is cut into small pieces called “chips.” The vast majority of wafer manufacturers are located in China. Compared with other parts of China, it is cheaper to produce polysilicon in Xinjiang, where companies can get substantial government subsidies and the cost of electricity provided by coal power plants, and wages are usually lower than in the more affluent areas of China.
REC Silicon is a Norwegian polysilicon manufacturer with manufacturing facilities located in the United States and invested more than $1 billion to build a polysilicon plant in Washington State. After China imposed tariffs on U.S. goods, the company had to slow down production first and then shut down completely in 2019.
The industry may face more domestic difficulties in the future. An executive of the American polysilicon manufacturer Hemlock Semiconductor Group, Tell investors On October 22, he was “quite convinced” that the US government was about to conduct an investigation into the solar supply chain.
Most of the polysilicon in Xinjiang Manufactured by four Chinese companies, they are one of the six largest material suppliers in the world. One is Dake New Energy, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. What follows is a requirement for transparency, which allows for a better understanding of how it works.
According to Chinese state media reports and the company’s website, it has close ties with a Chinese state-controlled paramilitary organization called the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), which is very powerful and can manage cities in the region. It is referred to as “Bingtuan” in Chinese, and its activities include helping Han immigrants settle in Xinjiang and manage farms. In 2013, the XPCC issued a policy document, including solar energy as one of its “development goals”.
In July, the US government imposed sanctions on the Corps, saying it helped implement Beijing’s mass detention policy against Muslims. December 2nd, United States Prohibition of import of cotton Produced by the Corps, citing evidence that it uses forced labor.
The Corps could not be reached for comment.
In the public documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in October, Duke Disclosure Because the Corps operates the regional power grid, it has gained an “extra advantage” in terms of electricity costs.Local national newspaper The report says The XPCC paid more than 489,447 yuan (approximately US$75,000) for the bridge subsidy. These companies received millions of dollars in subsidies from the Xinjiang Shihezi Municipal Government, which is managed by the Corps.Chinese Press releaseDaqu’s Xinjiang subsidiary also pointed out that it is considered a “pilot unit for innovative enterprises” of the Corps.
Daqo’s polysilicon plant is located a little more than 7 miles north of Shihezi City. Construction began in the spring of 2011, when 110 farmland the size of a football field was cleared to make way for the factory. By 2013, it had been completed, with large industrial buildings covering the site, connected by an elevated pipeline network. In 2014, the compound was expanded by another 3 million square feet, and new buildings continued to increase in the next two years. The latest growth of the factory occurred in the summer of 2019. An additional 3 million square feet was added to the southwest end of the compound, and part of the previously unused site was filled with buildings. The factory now occupies 12.2 million square feet, which is equivalent to 215 football fields.
Daqo could not be reached for comment, but Said before It “under no circumstances, whether in its own facilities or throughout the supply chain”, will not use forced labor.
According to research by CSIS and other organizations, in Xinjiang, projects euphemistically described as “poverty alleviation” are related to forced labor.
“Industry based on coal and slave labor is unsustainable.”
GCL-Poly Energy, another large-scale polysilicon manufacturer in Xinjiang, said in an annual report that it is cooperating with “vocational schools” in Xinjiang. The government has long called the detention camps in this area vocational schools. The Chinese news article also stated that GCL-Poly has participated in poverty alleviation projects.
GCL-Poly could not be reached for comment.
Francine Sullivan, vice president of business development for Norwegian polysilicon manufacturer REC Silicon, said the industry must make a choice.
“An industry based on coal and slave labor is unsustainable,” she said. “Most people in the solar field think it will be overwhelmed by us. We don’t have to deal with it because we are solar powered.” ●