- As solar industry grows, there are fears of it fueling a demand for goods produced by forced labor, according to a report by Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham
- Currently approaches are insufficient to address labor rights and supply-chain reform and focus instead on securing control of solar energy value chains
- Report writers fear without a global roadmap to address modern slavery risks, it would lead to slavery-free and slave-made supply chains
- The report offers a new method using lifecycle assessment approach to estimate forced labor risk per kWh and per USD LCOE
A report by Rights Lab at the UK University of Nottingham believes growing demand for solar may parallelly fuel demand for products made with forced labor, including polysilicon for solar panels and cobalt for lithium-ion batteries, unless the solar industry comes out with a global roadmap to address modern slavery risks.
Taking its title from a comment made by German Finance Minister Christian Lindner who called solar power as ‘the energy of freedom’, the report ‘The Energy of Freedom’? Solar energy, modern slavery and the Just Transition warns that in the absence of such a roadmap and the intent to act on it, the solar industry may be seen as a ‘driver of modern slavery’.
Report writers point at projections for solar energy to grow at 450% by 2030, with that it would need massive amounts of polysilicon—40% to 45% of which comes from China’s Xinjiang currently that’s become infamous for alleged forced labor practices involving local Uyghur population.
The US government’s Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act due to come into effect on June 21, 2022 will block the imports of solar products into the country, unless the importer can prove it doesn’t have any links with Xinjiang made goods. But the Nottingham report thinks this doesn’t solve the problem.
“Policy responses around the world are shifting from a focus on labor rights and supply-chain reform to industrial policy aimed at securing control of solar energy value-chains,” according to the report.
However, several manufacturers are now expanding to regions outside Xinjiang or even China for production which, according to the authors is not the solution since it may lead to ‘a bifurcated supply-chain emerging, with ‘slavery-free’ supply-chains serving markets that exclude goods made with forced labor, and ‘slave-made’ supply-chains supplying the rest.’ This approach may increase costs and bring down innovation, but still not address modern slavery risks, it fears.
The writers say that China’s stance in the matter makes it difficult to carry out due diligence and thus making it hard to identify and measure the risks, hence the need to develop new, complementary approaches to estimating modern slavery risk in the value chain.
To deal with this and facilitate improved risk management at all levels, the report offers a new method to estimate forced labor risk per kWh and per USD LCOE, using a lifecycle assessment approach from cradle-to-gate model. It does not factor in the end of life or energy use part, but provides detailed country-level analysis covering top 30 PV producing countries.
Funded by the British Academy’s Just Transitions within Sectors and Industries Globally, the report stresses upon the need to prepare a roadmap to ensure solar industry does not carry with it the tag of perpetuating modern slavery.
“The current approach, which relies on non-uniform, unscalable and organic risk identification processes is less efficient, less predictable, and spreads risk mitigation costs across all actors, rather than allocating them to those that are, in fact, the greatest source of risk,” it reads.
The report can be downloaded for free from the university’s website.