by Michael Shellenberger
Democrats Must Stop Sacrificing Good American Nuclear Jobs For Cheap Chinese Solar Panels
China made solar panels cheap through coerced labor, not innovation.
The Biden Administration is promoting the participation of Chinese President Xi Jinping in a White House climate summit at a time when Congress is considering whether or not to halt the import of solar panels from China for human rights reasons.
“China’s Solar Dominance Presents Biden With an Ugly Dilemma,” read the headline of a New York Times article published yesterday. “President Biden’s vow to work with China on issues like climate change is clashing with his promise to defend human rights.”
The U.S. State Department in January 2021 called the Chinese government treatment of the Uyghurs “genocide.” The State Department says one million Uyghurs have been forced into concentration camps in Xinjiang province, or forced to work in factories, including ones that make solar panels, one of the region’s largest industries. “Shinta energy, East Hope Group, and GCL Poly-Energy Holdings have all been linked to a state-run employment program that,” reported Bloomberg earlier this week, “at times amount to forced labor.”
The Chinese Embassy in Washington called claims of forced labor in Xinjiang “a rumor created by a few anti-China media and organizations,” and insisted that all workers in Xinjiang freely enter into contracts without coercion. “There is no such thing as ‘forced labor,’” insisted an Embassy representative.
But Secretary of State Antony Blinken doubled-down on the genocide label in a statement last week, saying that the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang constituted “an effort to commit genocide.” And the U.S., Canada, and the European Union have already already banned imports of cotton and tomatoes and, according to Bloomberg, “The substance needed for solar panels could be next.”
For years, renewable energy advocates had claimed that radical cost declines of solar panels would come from improved efficiency in the conversion of sunlight into electricity. But it’s today clear that “the China price” stemmed in some measure from the coerced labor of Uyghur Muslims. “Xinjiang is known for low safety and environmental standards,” noted the Times. Forced labor “may be just part of the incentive package,” said a solar executive.
Even the best performing models of the most common types of solar panels only saw their efficiency rise by 2-3 percentage points over the last decade. As such, it is impossible that efficiency increases accounted for the two-thirds decline in the cost of solar panels over the same period.
Solar panel makers have in recent weeks sought to reassure lawmakers and journalists that they will quickly and easily relocate their facilities out of Xinjiang to somewhere else in China, and thus that there is no need for the White House and Congress to ban the importation of their panels. Over 200 solar companies so far have signed a pledge to relocate from the region. “Our understanding is that all the major suppliers are going to be able to supply assurances to their customers that their products coming into the U.S. do not include polysilicon from the region,” said a solar industry spokesperson.
But supply assurances is very different from supplying solar panels assured to be free of coerced labor. And even moving some factories out of Xianjiang would not address the genocide, noted The Times. “Some Chinese companies have responded by reshuffling their supply chains, funneling polysilicon and other solar products they manufacture outside Xinjiang to American buyers, and then directing their Xinjiang-made products to China and other markets.”
But solar panel making is a heavy industry which could take years to relocate. Factories would need to be located near to where its core material, polysilicon, is made. And relocating tens of thousands of workers, not just equipment in buildings, as well as the housing and infrastructure they all require, would require enormous social disruption. Proof of this comes from the difficulty experienced by clothing and footwear companies to relocate from Xianjiang for the same reasons.
And there is no independent way of confirming that manufacturers have shifted production to regions free of genocide and persecution, since there is no free and independent monitoring of the Chinese solar panel makers. Earlier this week Bloomberg Quicktake aired a special investigation, “Why Secrecy Haunts China’s Solar Factories in Xinjiang.”
Bloomberg quoted a Chinese government saying his government welcomed media investigations. “We welcome foreign media to visit and to see with their own eyes the achievements there. We also call on media outlets that are committed to objective and not biased reporting as well as professional ethics to tell the true story.”
But when two Bloomberg reporters attempted to do so they were followed by Chinese secret police and rebuffed by understandably fearful solar panel workers. “We’re told, on the one hand, ‘Come visit. We want journalists to come.’ But the reality is just so starkly different,” one of the Bloomberg reporters said. The solar panel workers, he said, “had obviously been well-trained by the company to respond, should somebody from the outside, whether it be a journalist or a diplomat, ask them questions about what’s going on in the factory.”
Another difficulty will be the higher cost of energy outside of the region. “Xinjiang has a lot of relatively cheap coal,” said another Bloomberg analyst. “And cheap energy means cheap polysilicon,” the main feedstock for solar panels.
But even if the Uyghur Muslim workers, their housing, and the solar panel factories were relocated, China’s genocide against them would continue. “Episodes of forced labor have also been reported in Chinese facilities outside Xinjiang,” noted the Times, “where Uyghurs and other minorities have been transferred to work.”
The issue, in the end, is not producing solar panels in the region of Xinjiang. The issue is China’s genocide against, and the use of the coerced labor of Uyghur Muslims, which could continue anywhere in China.
Democrats Opt for Chinese Solar Over American Nuclear
The Democrats’ climate infrastructure legislation in Congress proposes a national Clean Energy Standard, which would require electricity providers to generate 80% of their power from zero-emissions resources by 2030 and 100% by 2035. That Standard appears to include nuclear and, theoretically, should help nuclear plants on the verge of being closed and replaced by natural gas and renewables.
But the broader legislation, and President Biden’s proposed budget, would heavily subsidize solar and wind, including its enabling infrastructure, but not nuclear plants. As such, the combined impact of the legislation could be to accelerate the premature closure of nuclear plants around the U.S.
To a significant extent this is already happening. In Congress and across the U.S., Democratic lawmakers are advocating and overseeing the closure of nuclear power plants, and their replacement with both China-made solar panels and natural gas, in California and New York, and will do so in Illinois, if legislators fail to act to save the nuclear plants scheduled to prematurely close later this year.
Sitting Democratic governors have used behind-the-scenes efforts, including ones that involved illegal donations from natural gas firms, to pressure nuclear plants to close prematurely, as well as state mandates and credit programs, similar to the ones Democrats are proposing in their climate change and infrastructure legislation.
In 2019, U.S. Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, “The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change,”but a few months later advocated the closure of Indian Point nuclear plant, which at the time provided carbon-free electricity for roughly three million New Yorkers.
Ocasio-Cortez got her wish and Indian Point is in the process of being shut down and being replaced by fossil fuels, as well solar panels. “After one of Indian Point’s two working reactors was permanently shut down last summer,” reported the Times last week, “the share of the state’s power that came from gas-fired generators jumped in 2020 to about 40 percent, from about 36 percent in 2019, federal data show.” Emissions are likely to rise further after the second reactor is closed in a few weeks.
In California, even anti-nuclear advocates today acknowledge that emissions are likely to rise if Governor Gavin Newsom of California follows through on his promise to close Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in 2024 and 2025. Last summer, California lacked sufficient electricity by roughly the same amount as had been provided by the nuclear power plant that California’s Democratic leaders forced to close prematurely in 2013.
Democratic elected officials have said that solar and wind can replace the lost nuclear, but the Timesnoted that “each of Indian Point’s reactors had been producing more power than all of the wind turbines and solar panels in the state combined.”
The same problem has afflicted California. “People wonder how we made it through the heat wave of 2006,” said the CEO of California’s electricity grid operator.. “The answer is that there was a lot more generating capacity in 2006 than in 2020…. We had San Onofre [nuclear plant] of 2,200 megawatts and a number of other plants totalling thousands of megawatts not there today.”
With nuclear plants generating nearly 20 percent of U.S. electricity, and solar and wind just half of that, the Democrats’ legislation could ultimately raise rather than lower emissions by continuing to eliminate emission-free nuclear power generation that solar and wind cannot adequately replace.
Why Biden Must Opt for American Nuclear Over Chinese Solar
China decides its energy policy based on politics internal to the Politburo, and various industry lobbies, and is simply using the issue of climate change to manipulate the West, say some experts. “Xi’s bullish talk of combating climate change is a smokescreen for a more calculated agenda,” wrote two experts at the U.S. Naval War College and Rice University in Foreign Affairs.
“Chinese policymakers know their country is critical to any comprehensive international effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and they are trying to use that leverage to advance Chinese interests in other areas.”
Neither China nor Russia are sincere in their promises, agreed the vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “What is striking to me,” she said, “is that while both Beijing and Moscow are speaking the language of climate change before international audiences, at home, they are putting their foot on the accelerator to increase global carbon emissions.” She pointed to Russia’s exports of natural gas to Germany and much of Europe, and of China’s increasing reliance on coal plants to make low-cost products like solar panels.
The climate summit with Xi, closing nuclear power plants, and refusing to apply the same standard to solar panels as governments have applied to tomatoes and shoes, are a bad look for Biden and the Democrats.
It’s not too late for action. Republicans in Congress introduced a bill that would ban the import of Chinese-made solar panels into the U.S. But Democrats have not cosponsored it.
Some know better. Moderate Democrats like Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania recognized after the 2020 election that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s anti-nuclear “Green New Deal” made the party look extreme. He should see that Democrats including President Biden are at risk of appearing to value Chinese solar jobs over American nuclear ones.
The people closest to the issue express the most fear and anger over what is happening to minorities in China. The researcher who broke the story of coerced Uyghur labor being used to make solar panels unequivocally condemned those who continue to buy Chinese solar panels today. “I would say you are complicit in perpetuating this Chinese industrial policy that suppresses and disenfranchises human beings.”
The replacement of good nuclear jobs with Chinese solar panels will be felt in working-class communities. Nuclear power plants can run for 80 years or more and sometimes employ three generations of families who earn comparatively high wages, thanks to the high-tech nature of atomic energy.
Such will be the case in New York. The Indian Point closure will also deprive the local community of $32 million in annual contributions from the plant’s operator including $24 million that went directly to schools.
Also lost will be 1,000 good, high-paying jobs. By contrast, the largest new solar farm in the U.S. will create just six permanent jobs.