U.S. officials have begun blocking the import of solar panels they believe are the result of forced labor in China, enforcing a recent ban that could stymie the construction of solar energy projects across the country. 

According to industry executives and analysts, solar panels from at least three Chinese companies have been targeted in recent weeks. A Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesman confirmed via email that the agency has “made several detentions” of products subject to the import ban. 

In June, CBP imposed a ban on Hoshine Silicon, which manufactures raw materials used in solar panels. The agency stated that it had information “reasonably indicating” that Hoshine, which operates plants in China’s Xinjiang region, employs forced labor, triggering the ban because U.S. law prohibits importing goods made by coerced workers. 

The Washington Post and human rights researchers have linked Hoshine to coercive state labor programs targeting Uyghurs and other minorities. 

Chinese firms dominate global solar panel production, with many sourcing raw materials from Hoshine, the world’s largest producer of metallurgical-grade silicon. 

According to the Biden administration, solar is the fastest-growing source of new electricity generation in the United States. It intends to increase it from 3% of total electricity generation today to more than 40% by 2035. 

The ban highlights the conflict between the administration’s human-rights agenda and its efforts to combat climate change. 

We want to rapidly transition our fuels to solar and wind and other renewables,” said Mark Jacobson, a renewable energy expert and engineering professor at Stanford University. “Any slowdown of this transition creates a loss of life,” he added, noting that the burning of fossil fuels is the main driver of air pollution that causes 78,000 deaths per year in the United States and seven million globally. 

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who oversees CBP, has said the administration remains committed to renewable energy. “But and this is very important, we’re going to root out forced labor wherever it exists, and we’ll look for alternative products to achieve the environmental impacts that are a critical goal of this administration,” he said when he announced the import ban in June. 

The CBP enforcement actions have “had a real significant disruption to a lot of planned projects and their ability to complete them this year. It’s going to be very challenging, very difficult,” said Mark Widmar, chief executive of First Solar, a U.S.-headquartered panel manufacturer that doesn’t use Chinese materials. 

Widmar said he’d been contacted by some customers looking for alternative suppliers because they’ve had panels detained. He said that First Solar is building new factories in Ohio and India but has limited capacity to fulfill new orders in the coming months. 

According to Philip Shen, a Roth Capital Partners solar industry analyst, his discussions with power utilities and other panel buyers indicate that JinkoSolar, based in Shanghai, has been among the hardest hit manufacturers, with CBP detaining panels capable of generating approximately 100 megawatts of electricity. 

The CBP enforcement measures are just one of the challenges that Chinese solar panel manufacturers face as tensions between the US and China rise. As Congress debates major infrastructure spending bills, some lawmakers attempt to prevent funds from being spent on Chinese materials. 

This month, an amendment included in the Senate’s $3.5 trillion budget resolution would prohibit Chinese components from being used in renewable energy projects. The Senate approved the amendment by a vote of 90 to 9. 

Chinese companies dominate the solar manufacturing industry, partly because of the country’s cheap coal-fired electricity. Human rights researchers say that low cost and forced labor have also helped Chinese suppliers reduce production costs and prices. 

Source: The Seattle Times