WASHINGTON — President Biden has repeatedly pledged to work with China on issues like climate change while challenging Beijing on human rights and unfair trade practices.
But those goals are now coming into conflict in the global solar sector, presenting the Biden administration with a tough choice as it looks to expand the use of solar power domestically to reduce the United States’ carbon dioxide emissions.
The dilemma stems from an uncomfortable reality: China dominates the global supply chain for solar power, producing the vast majority of the materials and parts for solar panels that the United States relies on for clean energy. And there is emerging evidence that some of China’s biggest solar companies have worked with the Chinese government to absorb minority workers in the far western region of Xinjiang, programs often seen as a red flag for potential forced labor and human rights abuses.
This week, Mr. Biden is inviting world leaders to a climate summit in Washington, where he is expected to unveil an ambitious plan for cutting America’s emissions over the next decade. The administration is already eyeing a goal of generating 100 percent of the nation’s electricity from carbon-free sources such as solar, wind or nuclear power by 2035, up from only 40 percent last year. To meet that target, the United States may need to more than double its annual pace of solar installations.
many of which are imported from Chinese-owned factories in Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand.
China also supplies many of the key components in solar panels, including more than 80 percent of the world’s polysilicon, a raw material that most solar panels use to absorb energy from sunlight. Nearly half of the global supply comes from Xinjiang alone. In 2019, less than 5 percent of the world’s polysilicon came from U.S.-owned companies.
“It’s put the Democrats in a hard position,” said Francine Sullivan, the vice president for business development at REC Silicon, a polysilicon maker based in Norway with factories in the United States. “Do you want to stand up to human rights in China, or do you want cheap solar panels?”
The administration is increasingly under pressure from influential supporters not to turn a blind eye to potential human rights abuses in order to achieve its climate goals.
“As the U.S. seeks to address climate change, we must not allow the Chinese Communist Party to use forced labor to meet our nation’s needs,” Richard L. Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., wrote in a letter on March 12 urging the Biden administration to block imports of solar products containing polysilicon from the Xinjiang region.
Xinjiang is now notorious as the site of a vast program of detention and surveillance that the Chinese government has carried out against Muslim Uyghurs and other minority groups. Human rights groups say the Chinese authorities may have detained a million or more minorities in camps and other sites where they face torture, indoctrination and coerced labor.
In a report last year, Horizon Advisory, a consultancy in Washington, cited Chinese news reports and government announcements suggesting that major Chinese solar companies including GCL-Poly, East Hope Group, Daqo New Energy, Xinte Energy and Jinko Solar had accepted workers transferred with the help of the Chinese government from impoverished parts of Xinjiang.
Jinko Solar denied those allegations, as did the Chinese government. Zhang Longgen, a vice chairman of Xinjiang Daqo — a unit of one of the companies cited by Horizon Advisory — said that the polysilicon plants were not labor intensive, and that the company’s workers were freely employed and could quit if they wanted, according to Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-owned newspaper. The report said that only 18 of the 1,934 workers at Xinjiang Daqo belonged to ethnic minorities, and that none were Uyghur.