An unlikely coalition of Republicans, Democrats, and labor leaders are concerned by the solar industry’s dependence on goods linked to Chinese forced labor camps, a development that threatens President Joe Biden’s push for a green energy economy.
Western China’s Xinjiang region—where China is forcing more than a million Uyghurs into brutal forced labor regimes—dominates the solar sector’s supply chain. Nearly half of the world’s polysilicon, a raw material crucial to producing solar cells, comes from Xinjiang. That economic dependency is attracting the attention of a bipartisan group of lawmakers and union heads, who cite credible reports linking the solar industry to the modern-day slavery regime.
The first volley came from AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. A top Biden ally whose union spent millions backing Democrats in 2020, Trumka called on the White House to block solar product imports from Xinjiang due to “convincing evidence of systematic forced labor” in a March letter. Weeks later, a group of eight GOP senators unveiled the Keep China Out of Solar Energy Act, which would prohibit the use of federal funds to purchase solar panels “manufactured or assembled in Communist China.”
Congressional Democrats are also getting in on the act. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) in March urged the Solar Energy Industries Association to “protect consumers from inadvertently contributing to human rights abuses abroad” by banning certain Xinjiang products. The national trade association, which represents more than 1,000 solar companies, responded by noting that it has called on its members to “completely leave the Xinjiang region by June.”
The wide-ranging effort to distance U.S. solar from the Xinjiang genocide illustrates the challenges facing the Biden administration’s “clean energy economy.” Top White House climate officials have touted the solar sector’s ability to deliver “good-paying union jobs,” particularly for displaced fossil fuel workers. But China’s stranglehold on the industry means most U.S. solar jobs merely involve installing Chinese-made parts.