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US Solar Panels Rely on Chinese Forced Labor and Coal

Two recent headlines commanded our attention: (1) Behind the Rise of U.S. Solar Power, a Mountain of Chinese Coal (Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2021), and (2) In Broad Daylight: Uyghur Forced Labor and Global Solar Supply Chains (Sheffield Hallam University, May 2021) (Executive Summary here).

Together, they indict China's rapacious environmental and labor policies while they underscore the folly of America's policymakers upending our country's natural gas-based energy economy in a zero-carbon crusade that, thanks to Asia's major polluters, will have little if any impact on our climate.

We've written how China continues to be, by far, the world's greatest and growing source of CO2 emissions from coal-fired power generation, overwhelming and cancelling the reductions in CO2 emissions in the U.S. from greater use of natural gas and renewables. For a deeper dive, see our Morning Consult editorial of April 8 (China's Coal Frenzy Cancels Americas CO2 Emissions Reductions), along with Yale University's March 24, 2021 report, Despite Pledges to Cut Emissions, China Goes on a Coal Spree.

The Wall Street Journal piece points out that "the West faces a conundrum as it installs (solar) panels on small rooftops and in sprawling desert arrays: "Most of them are produced with energy from carbon-dioxide-belching, coal-burning plants in China. Concerns are mounting in the U.S and Europe that the solar industry's reliance on Chinese coal will create a big increase in emissions in the coming years as manufacturers rapidly scale up production of solar panels to meet demand."

Because of their abundance of cheap coal, "China has pushed down the price of panels so sharply that solar power is less expensive than electricity generated from fossil fuels in many markets around the world."

Now we have an alarming study (referenced above) from Sheffield Hallam University (a large and prestigious UK institution of higher learning) that provides another and even more deeply troubling reason Chinese solar panels are so cheap: (1) Ninety-five percent of them are made from polysilicon; (2) 45% of the world's solar-grade polysilicon comes from the Xinjiang (Uyghur) region of China; and (3) all polysilicon manufacturers in the Uyghur region have reported that they participate in the forced labor program, and/or are supplied by raw materials companies that have.

To be clear: EEIA supports responsibly-produced clean solar power operating in tandem with always-available clean natural gas fired power plants. We are opposed to solar power generated from artificially low-priced panels produced on the backs of forced Uyghur labor and containing polysilicon made from high-emitting Chinese coal furnaces.

It's clear to us that a U.S. Government committed to fair and equitable labor practices and to reducing emissions from coal combustion would restrict imports of Chinese polysilicon from the Xinjiang (Uyghur) region, or of solar panels made in China or any other country from polysilicon made with Uyghur forced labor.

It's also imperative that companies in the solar equipment manufacturing and the solar power generating industries must understand the extent to which their supply chains source silicon from China's Uyghur region, and align their sourcing policies to eliminate exposure to forced labor conditions.

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