I have been thinking about going solar. Apart from technical and expense questions, I was reading that most solar panels are produced in Xinjiang province, China, often with forced labor. Can I even find panels that aren’t made in China? The U.S. has sanctioned products from Xinjiang because 1.8 million Uyghurs are political prisoners, but I’ve heard that products can slip through by going to another country first. Can you tell me what to do?
Dear Solar Shopper,
Greening the electric grid is a crucial component of the fight to reduce carbon emissions. But if combating climate change is largely about preserving the safety and wellbeing of humankind, it would be a travesty to fuel humanitarian crises in the process.
Dot reached out to Alan Crawford, Chemical Engineering Consultant to the solar grade polysilicon industry, to see if he could shine some light on how to purchase solar without supporting supply chains that trace back to forced labor.
Over ninety-five percent of solar panels are made from a material called polysilicon, and about half of the global supply of polysilicon, the base material for solar panels, comes from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where the Chinese government has detained Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities and subjected them to forced labor.
So you can see why a large supply of the world’s solar panels are enabling this problematic part of the supply chain. But why not just buy solar panels that were made from polysilicon not produced in the XUAR?
The issue is that the supply chain for solar panels is particularly opaque. This is due in part to the step that follows polysilicon production: melting. Polysilicon from multiple sources can be melted together into ingots, which are then sliced into wafers, making it tricky to confirm the origins of these materials. Many companies don’t track that information, and some simply don’t disclose it.
As Crawford points out, the person installing your solar panels and even the company they work for are so removed from the earlier stages of the supply chain that they likely won’t even know where the polysilicon in their products has come from.
This all sounds pretty dismal, but don’t abandon your solar dream quite yet; Crawford definitely hasn’t. “Although it’s really messy right now, I’d say I’m optimistic,” Crawford says.
This is because the industry is changing. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which prohibits the importation of goods to the U.S. that were manufactured (either in whole or in part) with forced labor in China, especially in the XUAR, was signed into law at the end of 2021. Implementation began mid-2022.
Another cause for hope is that polysilicon production is ramping up outside of China. India, for example, is investing heavily in its photovoltaic module manufacturing capacity and will be a major producer of polysilicon in the next few years.
In addition, the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act offers tax credits to solar manufacturing companies, which is expected to boost polysilicon products in the U.S.
While there’s a positive trend in the solar industry away from products made by forced labor, Crawford estimates that it’ll be about two to three years before this trend begins to define the market. In the meantime, he says that you can either wait to purchase solar panels until they are clearly comprised of materials made outside of the XUAR, or, to cut your carbon emissions ASAP (time is of the essence in the fight against climate change), you can purchase from one of the companies whose supply chains he has researched and found little to no likelihood of their connection to polysilicon created with forced labor in XUAR.
“If I were buying modules today for my house in Montana, my top choice would be Trina Solar,” Crawford says. Trina is a Chinese company, but they operate U.S. module production in Thailand and Vietnam. Next, he would choose REC Solar. Crawford’s third choice would be First Solar, which is made entirely in the U.S. He also adds Meyer Burger to the list.
Crawford’s assessments are based on public disclosures and his own experience with the industry. Due to the solar supply chain’s murkiness, however, he can be very confident but not one hundred percent sure that these recommended companies do not use polysilicon from the XUAR. For the time being, a small risk remains. But the skies are clearing, and Crawford has a sunny outlook on the future of solar.