U.S. solar companies rely on materials from Xinjiang, where forced labor moves

Stringer China / Reuters

On April 5, 2012, a man walks through a solar panel at a solar power plant under construction in Aku, an autonomous region of Xinjiang Uyghur.

This was supported by the project The future center of future journalism, The Pulitzer Center, And Open Technology Fund.

Solar energy has earned a reputation as a virtuous industry, saving the planet by providing clean energy. But the industry has a dirty underbelly: it depends on Xinjiang, a region of China that – for its basic ingredients – has become synonymous with forced labor for the Muslim minority.

China has detained more than a million people in the last four years Detention facility network Its across the Xinjiang region. Many of these camps There are factories Where the Muslim minority is forced to work. The solar industry is highly dependent on parts and materials imported from the region, where heavy government surveillance makes it almost impossible for outside observers to assess if people are acting against their own will. However, there is no substitute for the components that the solar industry needs in the United States.

This is a special problem of polysilicon, the metallic gray crystalline form of the material in the formation of solar cells that converts light into energy. In 2016, only 9% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon came from Xinjiang. By 2020 it would have supplied about 45% of the world’s supply, according to industry analyst Johannes Bernierutter.

At least one major Chinese polysilicon manufacturer has close ties with a state-controlled paramilitary company, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Last year, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on the XPCC that aided the Muslims of Beijing in carrying out a massive coup and banned its cotton, proving that the U.S. was forced to produce labor.

The American solar industry faces a choice: ignore the risk of human rights violations or develop costly new alternatives for an industry struggling to compete against more polluted forms of energy production.

Another major Chinese polysilicon producer said it was “Vocational schoolIn Xinjiang, a red flag, because the Chinese government has long used the term as a synonym for intermediate camp.

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

“We have no indication that solar is directly involved,” he said, adding that despite the reports, we want to make sure that forced labor is never part of the solar supply chain. “

But as President-elect Joe Biden pledges to improve clean energy infrastructure in the United States and prepares to take office, the American solar industry faces an alternative: ignore the risk of human rights abuses or develop costly new alternatives to fight an industry. Form.

Costfoto / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

On June 30, 2020, a worker made polysilicon quartz rod in Donghai County, Jiangsu Province, China.

China came to dominate This is followed by the world polysilicon industry Put tariffs on polysilicon imports From the United States, South Korea and the EU and boost domestic production, As an apparent response to US-imposed tariffs, In 2014. China is also one of the largest customers of polysilicon, which means it is less desirable to compete with many companies outside of China because exporting there is no longer affordable. In its later years, China’s polysilicon industry has flourished not only in Xinjiang, but also in other regions, such as the southwestern province of Sichuan.

“Most of the supply is concentrated in China, and most of Southeast Asia is in plants owned by Chinese companies,” Berneruter said. “There is no big alternative to the supply chain.”

But imports from Xinjiang have attracted lawmakers in the United States in recent months.

Delegates to the latest Congress Considered While the bill would have banned all products from the region, a portion of the law is likely to be revived in the upcoming session. House Bill in particular Targeted “Poverty Alleviation” Program This led Muslims in Xinjiang to work in factories and farms away from their hometowns.

“It is almost impossible to assess the labor situation in Xinjiang with confidence.”

Since the end of 2016, the Chinese government has launched a campaign that includes mass captivity, digital surveillance, recognition, and forced labor on the ethnic Uighur, Kazakh, and other ethnic minorities in the far west of Xinjiang, among others. . Non-Chinese people visiting Xinjiang are often supervised or escorted by police officers, so it is very difficult for companies to monitor their supply chain for forced labor, experts said.

“It is almost impossible to assess the labor situation in Xinjiang with confidence because it is almost impossible to find a skilled assessor in the region. Amy Lehr, director and lead author of the Human Rights Program at Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., has limited ability to interview staff, especially Uyghur workers, due to surveillance. A report On forced labor in the region, BuzzFeed told News.

However, US customs and border protection already have the legal authority to ban imports from the region if it is suspected that forced labor has been used. The company stopped shipping human hair from Xinjiang in July Based on the report These extensions were made using prison labor. In December, the CBP Seize the invoice Cotton and computer parts from Xinjiang. This week, It is forbidden Importing tomatoes and cotton products from the region is called “slave labor”

“It is quite possible for the CBP to investigate Xinjiang-related forced labor risks, although not much attention is being paid to the issue,” Lehr said.

Xinjiang’s polysilicon often lands in the United States, according to a report by the Horizon Advisory Research Group.

“These products enter the United States through direct and indirect trans-shipment and processing in several other countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam,” the report said. To “co-industry”.

Forced labor is usually used for work that does not require special skills. Some of these types of work, such as cutting pipes of components, are used in the production of polysilicon.

If the United States bans polysilicon imports from China, industry experts say U.S.-based companies will have enough capacity to fill the gap, but will face supply costs and higher costs and other problems.

For one thing, other parts used in solar panels are also influenced by Chinese manufacturing. Once polysilicon is made, it is cut into small knots called “wafers” The majority of wafer manufacturers are located in China. And compared to other parts of China, it is cheaper to produce polysilicon in Xinjiang, where companies can get large subsidies from the government, and the cost of electricity supplied by coal plants and wages is generally lower than in the richer parts of China.

RAEC Silicon, a Norwegian polysilicon manufacturer whose manufacturing facilities are located in the United States, has invested more than বিল 1 billion in building a polysilicon factory in the state of Washington. After Chinese tariffs on U.S. goods hit, the company first had to slow production and then in 2019 it had to shut it down completely.

And this industry may face more domestic problems. An executive with Hemlock Semiconductor Group, a US-based polysilicon manufacturer, Says investors He was “convinced enough” that the U.S. government was investigating the solar supply chain on October 22.

BuzzFeed News; Google Earth

Satellite photos show the construction sequence of the Daco polysilicon plant

Most of the polysilicon in Xinjiang Has created four Chinese companies, which are among the six largest suppliers in the world. One, Dako New Energy Corp., listed on the New York Stock Exchange. It comes with transparency requirements that allow for a better understanding of how it is handled.

According to Chinese state media reports and the agency’s website, it has close ties to a Chinese state-controlled paramilitary organization known as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) – so strong that it manages cities in the region. Known simply as the “corps” in Chinese, its activities include the settlement of Han Chinese immigrants in Xinjiang and the management of farms. XPCC issued a policy document in 2013 setting solar energy as one of its “development goals”.

In July, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on the XPCC, saying it had helped implement Beijing’s mass internal policy aimed at Muslims. December 2, USA Import of cotton is prohibited Produced by XPCC, as evidence it uses forced labor.

XPCC could not be reached for comment.

In a public filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in October, Dako revealed XPCC operates the regional power grid because it has achieved “additional benefits” in electricity costs. Local state magazines That report XPCC provided Dako subsidies in excess of 489,447 yuan (about ডাক 75,000). The companies received several million more subsidies from the Shijiazhuang city of Xinjiang, run by XPCC. In a Chinese language Press release, A subsidiary of Dakor Xinjiang also mentioned that it is considered an “innovative enterprise pilot unit” of XPCC.

Daco’s polysilicon plant is located just miles north of Shihji City. Construction began in the spring of 2011, when 110 football fields were cleared to pave the way for the plant. By 2013, it was completed, with huge industrial buildings covering the site, connected to a network of elevated pipes. In 2014, the complex was expanded by another 3 million square feet, and new buildings continued to be added for the following two years. The latest plant growth occurred in the summer of 2019. Another three million square feet were added to the southwest edge of the mix, and unused parts of the site that were previously unused were filled in the building. The plant now covers 12.2 million square feet, equivalent to 215 football fields.

Dako could not be reached for comment Said earlier It does not use forced labor “in any case at its own convenience or throughout the entire supply chain.”

In Xinjiang, the program described as “poverty alleviation” has been verbally linked to labor force, according to research by CSIS and other organizations.

“Building an industry built on coal and slave labor would not be unsatisfactory.”

GCL-Poly Energy, another major silicone manufacturer in Xinjiang, says it works with Xinjiang’s “Vocational School” in its annual report. The government has long referred to internship camps in the region as vocational schools. Chinese-language news articles further state that GCL-Poly has taken part in the poverty alleviation program.

GCL-Polly could not be reached for comment.

The industry has to choose, says Francine Sullivan, vice president of business development at REC Silicon, a Norwegian polysilicon manufacturer.

“It would be unsatisfactory to build an industry built on coal and slave labor,” he said. “Most people in the solar system think it will be taken away from us. We are solar because it doesn’t have to deal with us. “

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