The solar industry is very much a part of the global economy: its supply chain traverses countries, oceans and continents, sourcing raw materials from certain regions, manufacturing products in others, and, ultimately, sending solar products to home and business owners everywhere. With how interconnected the solar industry is, it’s important to be cognizant of where and how solar equipment is sourced. In lieu of recent credible reports of human rights abuses and forced labor in parts of China that feed into the solar supply chain, it’s worth looking at how to ensure that the solar equipment you purchase is ethically and sustainably sourced.
Before digging into this, a quick note: allegations of human rights abuses and other unethical practices are an atypical topic area for us. After all, we write about clean energy, not issues of geopolitical intrigue. But we don’t take these reports of human rights violations and forced labor lightly, and we want to make sure you’re aware of this ongoing investigation and have options to ensure your solar equipment is ethically produced.
- There are credible reports of forced labor at polysilicon production facilities in Xinjiang, China
- The Solar Energy Industries Association has created a toolkit for companies to commit to sourcing ethically produced solar equipment, as well as questions to ask solar companies when reviewing their solar quotes
- Congress has introduced a bill that targets preventing the import of products made with forced labor into the US, which could limit the likelihood of unethically produced solar products making their way into the country
- Visit the EnergySage Marketplace to receive custom quotes from local installers; be sure to ask where they source their solar equipment
Where, and how, materials are transformed into solar equipment
At present, the biggest issue in the solar supply chain is concern over the use of forced labor in the Xinjiang region of China, an area where nearly half of the global supply of polysilicon is produced, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Reports coming out of the region indicate that forced labor is used specifically in solar production facilities in Xinjiang, and with the Biden Administration joining many other global leaders in placing sanctions on imported goods from the Xinjiang region, it’s important to take a look at what these reports say about and mean for the solar industry.
Solar panels rely on silicon as the “active ingredient”, the material that actually captures sunlight and converts it into electrical energy. Solar panels generally consist of either 60 or 72 solar cells, which are 6-inch by 6-inch squares of silicon with circuitry laid throughout. To get from raw silicon to a solar panel on your roof, silicon goes through a series of steps: it’s first converted into polysilicon, which is molded into ingots, pressed into wafers, cut into cells, and then laid out to form a solar module (or panel).
According to BloombergNEF, two-thirds of all polysilicon output comes from China, and 7 of the world’s top 10 producers are headquartered there, belying the dominance the country has over the global polysilicon market. Importantly, this means that even if your solar panel was assembled in a region outside of China (including even if the spec sheet says “Made in America!”), it likely is still relying upon solar cells made from polysilicon produced in China.
Steps the solar industry is taking
SEIA has launched several initiatives to ensure supply chain ethics and sustainability for solar. With regards to forced labor and human rights violations in Xinjiang in particular, SEIA has three primary ways that you can get involved:
- If you work for or represent a solar company, sign the Forced Labor Prevention Pledge to commit to conducting your business ethically to “uphold the integrity of the solar industry”;
- Review SEIA’s updated Commitment to Environmental & Social Responsibility, which provides a series of best practices and expectations to follow for different segments within the solar industry, from manufacturers to installers and even to solar purchasers;
- And, finally, check out SEIA’s Solar Supply Chain Traceability Protocol, which includes a series of questions for solar shoppers to ask their solar installers or suppliers to ensure you can track where your solar equipment is coming from.
To read more about this initiative, check out SEIA’s website.
The impact of the supply chain on solar pricing
The price you pay for solar is very closely tied to the efficiency and stability of the overall solar supply chain. As addressed in greater depth in our recent article about supply chain constraints, recent disruptions throughout the supply chain due to COVID-19 and pandemic-related restrictions have led to supply shortages and increased prices. Certainly, looking for an alternative to polysilicon produced in Xinjiang would limit the potential supply of solar materials and equipment available to you. Increased demand for ethically sourced solar equipment combined with that diminished supply could mean slightly higher prices for solar equipment. But that’s a small price to pay to avoid human rights abuses.
Steps the federal government is taking
In February, Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts introduced H.R.1155 – the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. The bill, which is still in committee, would ban the import of products made with forced labor in Xinjiang into the US. If the bill were to pass, the new policy would be “to prohibit the import of all goods, wares, articles, or merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured, wholly or in part, by forced labor from the People’s Republic of China and particularly any such goods, wares, articles, or merchandise produced in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China,” with only goods that are determined “by clear and convincing evidence” to not have been produced by forced labor.
If passed, this bill would likely limit the ability of the US to import solar products produced with polysilicon manufactured with forced labor in Xinjiang, making it easier to ensure that the solar products you purchase were ethically produced.
Search for ethically sourced solar equipment today
To get started researching and shopping for ethically sourced solar equipment, be sure to ask installers if they abide by SEIA’s Solar Supply Chain Traceability Protocol when you sign up for EnergySage, and encourage them to look into it if they’re unfamiliar with the Protocol. And you can always use the list of questions that SEIA developed to dig into the traceability of the solar equipment you’re planning to purchase. Be sure to check out our Buyer’s Guide to learn more about the solar panels, inverters and batteries available today.