The U.S. has begun cracking down on imported goods from China that may have been made with Uyghur forced labor. That includes solar panels, which have been detained at the border or shipped back to China in recent weeks.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act took effect in late June and requires companies to provide evidence that forced labor wasn't used to make imported goods. But despite months to prepare, the volume of documentation needed as proof has caught many in the solar industry flat-footed, according to reporting by The Wall Street Journal.
Companies that have had their solar panels turned away include Longi Green Energy Technology Co., Jinko Solar Co. and Trina Solar Co., which are among the biggest solar panel suppliers in the world. According to the Journal's reporting and sources, Longi has even temporarily paused operations at a Vietnam factory that manufactures panels bound for the U.S. as a consequence.
Xinjiang has historically been a major player in the solar industry, with roughly 41% of the global manufacturing capacity for the crucial panel component polysilicon, according to Clean Energy Associates. Human rights groups and numerous governments have pinpointed the northwestern region as the site of ongoing forced labor violations by the Chinese government, specifically against Uyghurs, an ethnic minority. They allege that China has undertaken an assimilation campaign, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to live in internment camps. Following the announcement of the UFLPA, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that enforcing it is part of the U.S. government's commitment to ending forced labor, including "genocide and crimes against humanity [that] are ongoing" in Xinjiang.
The UFLPA is based on the assumption that all goods originating in Xinjiang are made using forced labor, and thus restricts them from entering the U.S. unless suppliers can prove they are not.
The solar sector has had plenty of notice of the law. In light of the snowballing allegations of forced labor in Xinjiang, the trade group representing the U.S. solar industry told its members in October 2020 to walk back sourcing of materials from the region as a whole. The Biden administration then issued a business advisory in July 2021 warning businesses to cut supply chain ties with the region.
Last summer, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that the administration’s clean energy objectives “will not be achieved on the backs of human beings in a forced labor environment.”
This sentiment was echoed by the Solar Energy Industries Association itself. When the law passed in December 2021, SEIA president and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper said in a statement that its member companies had moved their supply chains out of the region, and many were using third-party audits as added verification.
“The risks of forced labor in the region are just too high,” she said at the time.
An ongoing Commerce Department probe caused widespread concerns about the potential for solar material tariffs, adding additional challenges for the industry. Rising critical mineral prices and supply chain issues have added additional wrinkles as well.
Efforts to stamp out forced labor in Xinjiang underscore a growing issue as the world pivots to building out more clean energy infrastructure. Lithium and critical mineral mining's impact on both human rights and the environment in other regions of the world are also a growing concern.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Antony Blinken's name. This story was updated Aug. 9, 2022.