Consumers Energy’s proposal to ramp up its solar energy production in Michigan raises questions about whether the company will be able to supply reliable energy to its customers. Its plan to rely on solar also raises some key questions about the ethics of Michigan’s future energy supplies. One of the main components of solar energy infrastructure is a processed form of silicon called polysilicon. China produces a huge share of the world’s polysilicon.
Additionally, the mines that produce some of the other key materials needed for solar infrastructure are in countries without stringent environmental and labor standards. Much of China’s polysilicon production occurs in its northwestern provinces, including Xinjiang, which human rights advocates have strongly criticized for its systemic detention and abuse of the Uyghur people. Sadly, solar is not the only form of renewable energy tainted by its association with this region. The supply chain of China’s wind energy industry is tied to forced labor there as well.
While the Chinese government vehemently denies these charges, a growing number of reports claim that Uyghurs are forced to produce wind and solar components. Forced labor — slavery, to put it in more straightforward terms — is a serious concern anytime it occurs. It becomes even more of a concern here because, as Bloomberg News reports, “About 45% of the world’s supply of solar-grade polysilicon comes from Xinjiang.” Disruptions in this supply chain would severely threaten and restrict solar energy development worldwide — a problem for utility companies that plan to meet their customers’ needs through solar.
We see this scenario playing out currently, as the Biden administration has recently restricted U.S. purchases of silica-based products made by Hoshine Silicon Industry Co. Ltd., a Xinjiang-based producer of silicon products. The scarcity principle dictates that as supplies of a resource are restricted, they will become more expensive. Restrictions on imports of Chinese solar components will limit supplies, causing the prices of key components to rise. Policymakers should consider both the ethical and economic risks of relying on any energy source that depends on products produced with slave labor. They should also consider what will happen when that supply falters or fails.
It is essential that we care for our planet. Well-intentioned environmental and energy policy attempts to improve environmental health. But the ostensible ethics of promoting green energy cannot outweigh the real ethical and human costs of using forced labor to achieve green goals.
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