This project was supported by the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism, the Pulitzer Center and that Open Technology Fund.
Solar power has built a reputation as a virtuous industry and saved the planet by providing clean energy. But the industry has a dirty underbelly: it relies heavily on Xinjiang – a region in China that has become synonymous with forced labor for Muslim minorities – as its key components.
In the past four years, China has arrested more than a million people in a network of detention centers across its Xinjiang region. Many of these camps contain factories where Muslim minorities are forced to work. The solar industry largely relies on parts and materials imported from this region, where tight government surveillance makes it nearly impossible for outside observers to judge whether people are volunteering. However, there are few alternative suppliers for the components that the solar industry in the US needs.
This is a particular problem for polysilicon, the metal-gray crystal form of the element, which is essential for the manufacture of solar cells and which converts light into energy. In 2016, only 9% of the world’s solar grade polysilicon came from Xinjiang. According to industry analyst Johannes Bernreuter, it would supply around 45% of global supply by 2020.
At least one major Chinese polysilicon manufacturer is closely associated with a state-controlled paramilitary organization, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Last year, the US government sanctioned the XPCC for helping Beijing carry out its mass internment of Muslims, and the US banned its cotton, citing evidence obtained through forced labor.
The American solar industry has a choice: ignore the risk of human rights abuses or develop costly new alternatives for an industry that competes with more polluting forms of power generation.
Another major Chinese polysilicon maker said it was working with “vocational schools” in Xinjiang, a red flag because the Chinese government has long used the term as a euphemism for detention centers.
The Solar Energies Industry Association, which represents solar companies in the US, is against “reprehensible” human rights abuses in Xinjiang and “encourages” companies to move their supply chains out of the region, said John Smirnov, general counsel for the group.
“We have no evidence that solar is directly affected,” he said, “but given the reports, we want to make sure that forced labor is never part of the solar supply chain.”
But as President-elect Joe Biden prepares for office after promising to improve America’s clean energy infrastructure, the American solar industry faces a choice: ignore the risk of human rights abuses or develop costly new alternatives an industry that is competing in environmentally harmful forms of energy production.
China dominated the global polysilicon industry after it imposed tariffs on US, South Korea and EU polysilicon imports in 2014 and ramped up domestic production in overt retaliation against US-imposed tariffs. China is also one of the world’s largest consumers of polysilicon, which meant that it was less desirable for many companies outside of China to compete because it was no longer inexpensive to export there. In recent years, China’s polysilicon industry has flourished not only in Xinjiang but also in other regions such as southwest Sichuan Province.
“Most of the supply chain is concentrated in China, and most of Southeast Asia is in factories of Chinese companies,” said Bernreuter. “There is no great alternative for the supply chain.”
But imports from Xinjiang have drawn the ire of lawmakers in the United States in recent months.
At the last Congress, officials considered a bill that would have banned all goods from the region. This legislation is likely to be revived in the coming session. The House’s bill specifically targeted poverty reduction programs that encourage Muslims in Xinjiang to work in factories and farms outside their hometowns.
“It is almost impossible to safely assess the working conditions in Xinjiang.”
Since late 2016, the Chinese government has launched a campaign that includes mass detention, digital surveillance, indoctrination and forced labor against a population of approximately 13 million Muslim minorities in far west of Xinjiang, including ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others. Non-Chinese people visiting Xinjiang are often closely monitored or escorted by police officers, making it very difficult for companies to screen their supply chains for forced labor, experts say.
“It is almost impossible to reliably assess the working conditions in Xinjiang just because it is almost impossible to bring a competent appraiser to the region. And then their ability to interview workers, especially Uyghur workers, is limited because of the surveillance, ”said Amy Lehr, director of the human rights program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC and lead author of a report on forced labor in the region. said BuzzFeed News.
However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection already has the legal authority to ban imports from the region if it is suspected that forced labor has been used. The agency stopped shipments of human hair from Xinjiang in July based on reports that the extensions were being made with prison labor. In December, CBP confiscated shipments of cotton and computer parts from Xinjiang. This week it banned the import of tomato and cotton products from the region because of so-called “slave labor”.
“It is entirely possible that solar companies will be screened by CBP for Xinjiang-related forced labor risks in their supply chains, even if there is no regional ban, as this issue is receiving increasing attention,” said Lehr.
Research group Horizon Advisory said in a report that Xinjiang polysilicon frequently ends up in the US.
“These goods are entering the US directly and indirectly from China, in several other countries including Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, Singapore and Vietnam,” the report said. “Exposure to forced labor is widespread.” “In the industry including” Solar Panels Imported and Installed in the US “.
Forced labor is typically used to produce jobs that do not require special skills. Some of these types of tasks, such as breaking apart tubes of the material, are used in the manufacture of polysilicon.
According to industry experts, if the US banned polysilicon imports from China, industry experts would have enough capacity to make up the deficit, but would face higher costs and other problems in the supply chain.
On the one hand, other parts that are used in solar modules are also dominated by Chinese manufacturing. Once polysilicon is made, it is cut into tiny nuggets called “wafers”. The vast majority of wafer manufacturers are located in China. And compared to other parts of China, polysilicon is cheaper to make in Xinjiang, where companies can get large government subsidies and coal-fired electricity bills and wages are typically lower than more affluent parts of China.
REC Silicon, a Norwegian polysilicon manufacturer with manufacturing facilities in the United States, invested more than $ 1 billion to build a polysilicon factory in Washington state. After the Chinese tariffs on US goods fell, the company had to slow production first and then stop completely in 2019.
And the industry could face further domestic political difficulties. A senior executive at Hemlock Semiconductor Group, a US-based polysilicon maker, told investors on October 22 that he was “fairly confident” that a US government investigation into the solar supply chain was due.
Most of Xinjiang’s polysilicon is manufactured by four Chinese companies, which are among the six largest material suppliers in the world. One, Daqo New Energy Corp, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Linked to this are transparency requirements that enable a better understanding of how it works.
According to Chinese state media reports and the company’s website, it has a close relationship with a state-controlled Chinese paramilitary organization called Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) – an organization so powerful that it manages cities in the region. Activities, known simply as “the Corps” in Chinese, have included helping Han Chinese migrants settle in Xinjiang and managing farms. In 2013, the XPCC published a policy document that identified solar energy as one of its “development goals”.
In July, the US government imposed sanctions on the XPCC, saying it had helped implement Beijing’s mass internment policy against Muslims. On December 2, the US banned imports of cotton made by the XPCC, citing evidence of forced labor.
The XPCC could not be reached for comment.
In public filings filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission in October, Daqo announced that electricity bills have “added benefits” because the XPCC operates the regional power grid. The local state newspaper reported that XPCC paid more than 489,447 yuan (about $ 75,000) in Daqo subsidies. The companies received millions more in subsidies from the government of Shihezi, a city in Xinjiang administered by the XPCC. In a press release in Chinese, Daqo’s Xinjiang subsidiary also stated that it is considered an “innovative corporate pilot unit” of the XPCC.
The Daqo polysilicon facility is located just over seven miles north of Shihezi City. Construction began in the spring of 2011, when farmland the size of 110 football fields was cleared to make way for the facility. It was finished by 2013, with large industrial buildings covering the site and connected by a network of high pipes. In 2014 the site was expanded by an additional 3 million square meters, and more new buildings were added over the next two years. The latest growth of the facility took place in summer 2019. Another 3 million square feet were added to the southwest end of the site, and parts of the site that had not previously been used were filled with buildings. The facility now covers 12.2 million square meters, the equivalent of 215 soccer fields.
Daqo could not be reached for comment, but has previously stated that it “under no circumstances does it use forced labor in its own facilities or throughout the supply chain”.
In Xinjiang, programs euphemistically referred to as “poverty alleviation” have been linked to forced labor, according to research by CSIS and other organizations.
“It would not be sustainable to have an industry built on coal and slave labor.”
One of the other major polysilicon manufacturers in Xinjiang, GCL-Poly Energy, said in an annual report that it works with “vocational schools” in Xinjiang. The government has long referred to detention camps in the region as vocational schools. Chinese-language news articles also state that GCL-Poly is participating in poverty reduction programs.
GCL-Poly could not be reached for comment.
The industry has a choice to make, said Francine Sullivan, vice president of business development at REC Silicon, the Norwegian polysilicon maker.
“It would not be sustainable to have an industry built on coal and slave labor,” she said. “Most of the people in Solar think that it will wash away from us. We don’t have to deal with it because we are solar. “●