Majority of Solar Panels in the World are Produced in China's Xinjiang Region


The Xinjiang region in Western China plays a dominant role in global solar supply chain, and it's also become the center of widespread accusations that President Xi Jinping's government is systematically oppressing Muslim Uighurs with human rights abuses such as forced labor, rape and torture.

Leaked drone footage has shown prisoners with shaved heads sitting on the ground in orderly rows with hands tied behind their backs. There was also a report by the BBC last week which described detailed accounts of abuse that goes on inside the internment camps.

The detailed accounts from the inside shed light on a dirty secret of the solar industry: it relies on Xinjiang slave labor and its cheap coal power to produce half of its key raw material. And with demand for panels set to explode as the U.S. and China commit to more clean power, it will be even harder for the industry to quit the troubled region.

"Political pressure is building up within the industry to reconsider the supply chain," said Johannes Bernreuter, head of polysilicon market intelligence firm Bernreuter Research. "It's hard to have a supply chain right now without Xinjiang."

About 45% of the world's supply of solar-grade polysilicon comes from Xinjiang, according to Bernreuter. That's the base material for solar power used around the world. The conductive metal is shaped into bricks, sliced into razor-thin wafers, wired into cells and pieced together into the large panels that are installed on rooftops and large fields.

Polysilicon starts off as grains of sand - one part silicon to two parts oxygen - that are turned into silicon metal at industrial furnaces. The refining process that makes the material conductive enough to generate electricity is where solar companies and their investors are concerned forced labor may be used.

Polysilicon makers take the 99% pure silicon metal and remove impurities until it is 99.9999% pure. The process most commonly used to do that includes highly corrosive chemicals and heat above 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Electricity accounts for about 40% of operating costs, and Xinjiang has some of the cheapest power in China thanks to an abundance of coal. The region's reliance on the dirtiest fossil fuel also means that carbon emissions are generated in the process of making solar panels that use its polysilicon.

Units of massive Chinese solar manufacturers Longi Green Energy Technology Co., JA Solar Technology Co. and JinkoSolar Holding Co. all signed the pledge, and all have polysilicon contracts with Xinjiang-based manufacturers. Four of the world's five biggest solar polysilicon factories are in the region, according to clean energy research group BloombergNEF.

Bloomberg contributed to this report.

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