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China Boasts the World’s Largest Solar Power Plant. What It Doesn’t Boast About Is Its Oppression of the Uighur People

The country has just unveiled a 3.5 GW mega solar farm in a desert area of the Xinjiang region.

China’s world’s largest solar power plant
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Over the past two years, China has repeatedly demonstrated two of its great obsessions: mega-constructions and renewable energy. In the case of renewable, it's a sector that stands out for its production capacity and importance in the supply chain. In Xinjiang, the country has shown what it’s capable of. Last month, a state-owned company connected what it claims is the world’s largest solar farm. This sprawling 3.5-gigawatt facility covers over 32,947 acres and could power all of Papua New Guinea or Luxembourg.

For Beijing, however, the farm is having a less desirable effect: It's drawing attention to the repression of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, which international organizations have denounced for years, and its impact of forced labor on the renewable energy sector itself.

An XXL solar plant—and not just any solar farm. CGDG and Power Construction Corp of China (PowerChina) have recently turned on the largest solar farm on the planet. This facility went online in early June. According to Reuters, the 3.5 GW facility spans 32,947 acres. To install it, technicians chose the northwest of the country, in the Xinjiang autonomous region. Specifically, they targeted a desert area in Urumqi, its capital.

Uyghur Human Rights Project on X Click on the image to go to the tweet.

Energy for an entire country. The solar plant’s operators estimate that it will be able to generate around 6.09 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) per year. According to Reuters' calculations, this would be enough energy to power Papua New Guinea for 12 months. Other estimates suggest its capacity would meet almost all Luxembourg’s electricity needs.

Its capacity will further boost the strength of China in renewable power generation, which has already seen a significant rebound in 2023. Data released in January by the National Energy Administration shows that installed solar power generation capacity across the country increased by 55.2% in 2023.

Expanding China’s footprint. China already has two of the world’s largest solar installations: Longyuan Power Group’s Ningxia Tennggeli and Qinghai Golmud Wutumeiren, which have a capacity of around 3 GW. The Asian giant also has record-breaking wind energy generators and photovoltaic production. The Xinjiang Park is part of an even larger project to install 455 GW of solar and wind power, including mega-bases in sparsely populated areas from which it sends energy to urban centers.

The what, how much, and where matter. The new solar farm is in a desert area of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which stands out on China’s solar and wind energy map because of its importance and the controversy surrounding it. In the region, the government has promoted important facilities dedicated to renewable energy, such as the Urumqi Dabancheng, and other record-breaking infrastructures. But Xinjiang is also in the global spotlight because of the repression that various international organizations say the Uyghurs have suffered there.

A controversy that affects the sector. In 2021, Amnesty International reported that there was “mass detention, torture, and systematic persecution” of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, a campaign organized by the state, which it said constituted “crimes against humanity.” The UN itself issued a report on Xinjiang in 2022, warning of “serious human rights violations” against the Uyghurs and other Muslim communities.

What happens in Xinjiang would also directly impact the renewable energy sector. In 2021, William Alan Reinsch and Seán Arrieta-Kenna noted in the Center for Strategic & International Studies that much of the production of solar panels depends on components made in Xinjiang, focusing on workers’ conditions. In fact, they titled their article “A Dark Spot for the Solar Energy Industry: Forced Labor in Xinjiang.”

CSIS on X Click on the image to go to the tweet.

The origin of polysilicon. “Residential, commercial, and utility solar panels rely on photovoltaic (PV) cells to absorb and convert sunlight into usable energy. Most PV cells are made with polysilicon components. The polysilicon components are produced through an industrial furnace process that requires extremely elevated temperatures," Reinsch and Arrieta-Kenna wrote. "Xinjiang, with some of the cheapest power in China thanks to local abundance of coal, has become home to four of the five largest polysilicon factories in the world.”

After recalling the region’s significance in the sector, Reinsch and Arrieta-Kenna’s article mentions that between 2010 and 2020, China’s footprint in global polysilicon production grew exponentially, from 26% to 82%, while the U.S. lost ground at an equally accelerated rate. “According to Jenny Chase, head of solar analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, ‘nearly every silicon-based solar module—at least 95 percent of the market—is likely to have some Xinjiang silicon in it.’”

The Xinjiang connection. Earlier that year, the New York Times echoed a report by the consulting firm Horizon Advisory that suggested links between the growing photovoltaic sector in Xinjiang and “an extensive program of assigned labor in China that includes methods consistent with documented patterns of forced labor.” The study mentioned major companies in the sector and, according to the NYT, showed “indications” of the use of forced labor, government-sponsored transfers of workers from locations in Xinjiang, and even the use of “military-style” training.

“Extensive and growing evidence.” But they aren’t the only ones. A Sheffield Hallam University study “shows how forced labor in the Uighur region can permeate an entire supply chain and reach international markets.” Researchers say the solar industry is “particularly vulnerable” to being linked to the practice, as the region’s polysilicon producers account for 45% of the world’s supply of solar-grade material and warn that employment programs take place in “an environment of unprecedented coercion” and under “constant threat.”

On the agenda. Concerns about the impact of this type of labor continue surrounding the renewable energy sector in China, as recently reported by Semafor and Sourcing Journal, which warned a few months ago that the solar and electric car industries are “highly exposed” to the risks of forced labor due to Xinjiang’s significant influence in the supply chain for solar-grade polysilicon and the lithium, nickel, and graphite manufacturers used in lithium-ion batteries for vehicles. There are already voices in the industry, such as Skyline International, calling for greater transparency along the supply chain.

Image | PowerChina

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