US solar companies rely on materials from Xinjiang, where forced labor is common


Stringer China / Reuters

A man walks through solar panels at a solar power plant under construction in Aksu, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, April 5, 2012.

This project was previously supported Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism, The Pulitzer Center, And the Open Technology Fund.

Solar energy has earned a reputation as a utopia, saving the planet by providing clean energy. But the industry has a dirty base: It relies heavily on Xinjiang – a region in China that has become synonymous with forced labor of Muslim minorities – for key ingredients.

Over the past four years, China has held more than one million people in A. Network of detention facilities All over Xinjiang. Many of these camps Contain factories Where Muslim minorities are forced to work. The solar energy industry relies heavily on parts and materials imported from this region, where strict government surveillance makes it nearly impossible for outside observers to assess whether people are working of their own volition. However, there are few alternative suppliers of the components needed by the US solar industry.

It is a special problem for polysilicon, the metallic gray crystal form of the element is integral to making solar cells, which convert light into energy. In 2016, only 9% of the world’s polysilicon came from solar energy class from Xinjiang. But by 2020, it provided about 45% of the global supply, according to industry analyst Johannes Bernrotter.

A major Chinese silicon maker at least has close ties to a state-controlled paramilitary organization, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corporation (XPCC). Last year, the US government imposed sanctions on XPCC for helping Beijing carry out its mass arrest of Muslims, and the US banned the cotton it produces, citing evidence that it was produced using forced labor.

The US solar industry faces a choice: ignore the risks of human rights abuses or develop costly new alternatives for an industry struggling to compete against the most polluting forms of energy production.

Another major Chinese polysilicon producer said it works withSchool holidays“In Xinjiang, it is a red flag because the Chinese government has long used this term as a metaphor for the concentration camps.

The group’s general counsel, John Smirnaw, said the Solar Energy Industries Association, which represents solar energy companies in the United States, opposes “reprehensible” human rights violations in Xinjiang and encourages companies to move their supply chains outside of the region.

He said, “We have no indication that solar energy is directly involved, but in light of the reports, we want to ensure that forced labor is not part of the solar energy supply chain.”

But as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office, after promising to improve clean energy infrastructure in the United States, the US solar industry faces a choice: ignore the risks of human rights violations or develop costly new alternatives for an industry struggling to compete against it. More forms of polluting energy production.

Costfoto / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

A worker produces quartz rods made of polysilicon in Donghai County, Jiangsu Province, China, on June 30, 2020.

China came to dominate The global polysilicon industry then Establishing customs tariffs on imports of polysilicon From the United States, South Korea and the European Union and increase domestic production, In apparent retaliation for tariffs imposed by the United States, In 2014. China is also one of the largest consumers of polysilicon in the world, which means that it has become undesirable for many companies outside of China to compete with it because exporting them is no longer cost-effective. In the years that followed, the polysilicon industry thrived in China, not only in Xinjiang but in other regions such as the southwestern province of Sichuan.

“Most of the supply chain is concentrated in China, and most of the rest in Southeast Asia in factories owned by Chinese companies,” Bernreuter said. “There is no great substitute for the supply chain.”

But imports from Xinjiang have aroused US lawmakers’ ire in recent months.

In the last Congress, Representatives Considered A bill that would have banned all goods from the region, legislation that is likely to be revived at the next session. The House of Representatives bill specifically Targeting “poverty alleviation” programs Xinjiang Muslims are pushed to work in factories and farms far from their hometowns.

“It is almost impossible to confidently assess working conditions in Xinjiang.”

Since late 2016, the Chinese government has imposed a campaign that has included mass detention, digital surveillance, indoctrination, and forced labor on nearly 13 million Muslim minorities in the far western region of Xinjiang, including ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, and others. . Non-Chinese people visiting Xinjiang are often subjected to heavy surveillance or escort by police officers, so it’s very difficult for companies to audit their supply chains for forced labor, experts say.

“It is almost impossible to confidently assess working conditions in Xinjiang just because it is almost impossible to get a competent assessor in the area. Hence, their ability to interview workers, especially Uyghur workers, is limited by monitoring,” Amy Lear, Director of the Human Rights Program At the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, lead author Of the report About forced labor in the area, BuzzFeed News said.

But US Customs and Border Protection already has the legal authority to ban imports from the region if they suspect the use of forced labor. The agency stopped a shipment of human hair from Xinjiang in July Based on the reports The extensions were made using prison labor. In December, CBP Reserved shipments From cotton and computer parts from Xinjiang. this week, Has been banned Imports of tomatoes and cotton products from the region are based on what is called “forced labor”.

“It is very likely that solar energy companies will come under scrutiny by the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection regarding the risks of forced labor related to Xinjiang in their supply chains even if there is no regional ban because this issue is getting more attention,” said Lehr.

The research group Horizon Advisory said in a report that polysilicon from Xinjiang lands more often in the United States.

The report says: “These goods enter the United States from China directly and through transshipment and indirect processing in many other countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, Singapore and Vietnam,” and concluded that “exposure to forced labor is widespread” in the industry, including It is “Imported and installed solar panels in the United States”.

Forced labor is typically used in manufacturing jobs that do not require specialized skills. Some of these types of tasks, such as disassembling material tubes, are used in the production of polysilicon.

If the United States bans imports of polysilicon from China, industry experts say the US-based companies will have enough capacity to make up for the shortfall, but will face higher costs and other supply chain problems.

For one thing, Chinese manufacturing also dominates other parts used in solar panels. Once polysilicon is made, it is cut into small nuggets called “chips.” The vast majority of wafer makers are located in China. Compared to other parts of China, it is cheaper to manufacture polysilicon in Xinjiang, as companies can receive large subsidies from the government and the cost of electricity provided by coal plants, and wages are usually lower than in the wealthier parts of China.

REC Silicon, a US-based Norwegian polysilicon maker, has invested more than $ 1 billion in building a polysilicon plant in Washington state. After imposing Chinese tariffs on US goods, the company had to first slow production and then shut down completely in 2019.

The industry may face more domestic difficulties in the future. An executive of the Hemlock Semiconductor Group, a US-based polysilicon manufacturer, He told investors On October 22, he was “somewhat convinced” that a US government investigation into the solar energy supply chain was coming.

BuzzFeed News; Google Earth

Satellite images showing the construction sequence of Daqo’s polysilicon plant

Most of the polysilicon is in Xinjiang Manufactured by four Chinese companies, it is among the six largest material suppliers in the world. One, Daqo New Energy Corp, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. With that comes the requirements for transparency that allow a better understanding of how it works.

According to Chinese state media reports and the company’s website, it has close ties to a Chinese state-controlled paramilitary organization called the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) – an organization so powerful that it runs cities in the region. Best known in China as the “Legion”, its activities have included helping Han Chinese immigrants settle in Xinjiang and run farms. XPCC issued a policy document in 2013 that defines solar energy as one of its “development goals”.

In July, the US government imposed sanctions on XPCC, saying it had helped implement Beijing’s mass detention policy targeting Muslims. On December 2, the United States Banned imports of cotton Produced by XPCC, citing evidence that they use forced labor.

Cannot access XPCC for comment.

In public filings filed in October with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Daqo revealed It has gained “additional benefits” in electricity costs because XPCC operates the regional power grid. Local state newspaper This has been reported XPCC paid Daqo subsidies of more than 489,447 yuan (about $ 75,000). The companies received millions more in subsidies from the government of Shihese, a city in Xinjiang administered by XPCC. In Chinese language Press releaseDaqo’s Xinjiang Corporation also notes that it is XPCC’s “Innovative Enterprise Pilot Unit”.

The polysilicon plant is located in Daqo, a little more than 7 miles north of Shihzhi. Construction began in the spring of 2011, when 110 soccer fields of farmland were cleared to make way for the factory. By 2013, it was complete, with large industrial buildings covering the site, linked together by a network of raised tubes. In 2014, the complex was expanded by another 3 million square feet, and over the next two years, new buildings continued to be added. The final growth of the plant occurred in the summer of 2019. Another 3 million square feet was added at the southwestern end of the complex, and parts of the site that had previously been unused have been filled up with buildings. The plant now covers 12.2 million square feet, the equivalent of 215 soccer fields.

Daqo can’t be reached for comment, however He previously said It does not employ forced labor “under any circumstances whether in its own facilities or throughout its supply chain.”

In Xinjiang, programs euphemistically described as “poverty alleviation” have been linked to forced labor, according to research by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and other organizations.

“It would be unsustainable to have an industry built on coal and slave labor.”

GCL-Poly Energy, one of the largest polysilicon manufacturers in Xinjiang, said it is working with “vocational schools” in Xinjiang in an annual report. The government has long referred to detention camps in the area as vocational schools. Chinese language news articles also indicate that GCL-Poly is involved in poverty alleviation programs.

GCL-Poly could not be reached for comment.

Francine Sullivan, vice president of business development at REC Silicon, the Norwegian polysilicon maker, said the industry has to choose.

“It would be unsustainable to have an industry built on coal and slave labor,” she said. “Most people in solar energy think it will fade away from us. We don’t have to deal with it because we are solar.” ●

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