BEIJING — The Biden administration’s solar power ambitions are colliding with complaints the global industry depends on Chinese raw materials that might be produced by forced labor.
A big hurdle is polysilicon used to make photovoltaic cells for solar panels. The global industry gets 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 supply 35%. Only 20% comes from the U.S. and other producers.
In Xinjiang, more than 1 million Uyghurs and other members of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups have been forced into detention camps, according to foreign researchers and governments. Authorities are accused of forced sterilizations of minorities and of destroying mosques. Chinese officials reject accusations of abuse and say the camps are for job training aimed at economic development and deterring radicalism.
The U.S. and some Chinese solar vendors have pledged to avoid suppliers that might use forced labor. However, it isn’t clear whether they can meet rising demand without Xinjiang, where Beijing won’t allow independent inspections of workplaces.
The most prominent 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 Elima of Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University.
The possibility of forced labor “is a problem,” Kerry told U.S. legislators last week. He cited “solar panels that we believe in some cases are being produced by forced labor.” Western governments have imposed travel and financial restrictions on Chinese officials blamed for abuses. The U.S. government has banned imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang, citing concerns over forced labor. Kerry said that the administration was assessing whether to extend that ban to solar panels and raw materials from Xinjiang. He said he didn’t know the status of that review.