U.S. House unanimously passes forced labor bill for Xinjiang region

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The House of Representatives unanimously passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention act. If enacted, the law would ban all imports from the Chinese region of Xinjiang unless the products are determined to not be connected to forced labor.

The region, which is home to 50% of the global supply of polysilicon, an essential material in conventional solar modules, has come under scrutiny for its human rights abuses and the forced labor of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that President Biden will sign the bill, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the bill will be sent to the Senate for “swift action.”

In June, the Biden administration ordered a ban on U.S. imports from Xinjiang-based Hoshine Silicon Industry Co., as well as three other companies in the region, and banned exports to what it said is the paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Shortly thereafter the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs took an unprecedented step by publishing a Federal Register Notice that targets polysilicon produced in the region.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh on a tour of a First Solar CdTe facility in Lake Township, Ohio, on August 17.

Image: First Solar

“The world and the American people cannot abide the presence of goods made under the exploitative conditions experienced by Uyghur and other ethnic minority groups in its global supply chains,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. Corporations like Coca-Cola and Nike have lobbied against the new bill, which would have a major impact on supply chains that are deeply woven into China’s economy.

In August, an anonymous group of solar companies sought tariffs on a handful of companies that import modules from Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The group called for anti-dumping and anti-circumvention tariffs, pointing to uncertainty in the companies’ supply chain ties to China, and suspected dumping of forced-labor goods.

Solar industry leaders described the tariffs as potentially crippling. The Department of Commerce rejected the request in November, which Solar Energy Industries Association president and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper called “a major victory for America’s 231,000 solar workers.”

In 2020, the EIA reported U.S. imports of solar panels fell 27% in the third quarter, as tensions between Washington D.C. and Beijing rose.

U.S. manufacturing

With sanctions increasing internationally, the U.S. looks to bolster its own domestic supply chain as it pursues goals of decarbonizing energy.

The Senate Finance Committee released its draft of the Build Back Better (BBB) infrastructure bill, which includes incentives for the U.S. manufacture of thin-film PV and crystalline silicon PV. The bill also added incentives for U.S.-made solar trackers, inverters, and other renewable energy technologies. 

The U.S. is exploring polysilicon alternatives like perovskites.

Image: NREL/Dennis Schroeder

Simultaneously, Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) sponsored a bill passed by the House in November that also pursues a boost in U.S. manufacturing. Similar to the BBB provisions, Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Act would offer tax credits for domestic manufacture of solar-grade polysilicon, wafers, cells, modules, as well as trackers and inverters.

With polysilicon largely sourced from the Xinjiang region, the U.S. is exploring other photovoltaics, like cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin-film panels, and Earth-abundant but relatively unstable perovskites.

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