Posters in the factory’s lobby proudly declare that the company is “countering China’s state-subsidized dominance of solar supply chains” while churning out products that are “uniquely American” and “Ohio-made.
The question now: Can First Solar and its smaller counterparts in the U.S. solar industry crank up enough manufacturing capacity to meet the administration’s renewable energy goals or will U.S. power companies remain dependent on the massive Chinese solar industry, despite concerns about how it operates?
The technology offers a high-profile test of the United States’ ambition to re-shore manufacturing after years of losing ground to China’s low-cost and state-subsidized factories. Since 2004, U.S. production of the photovoltaic cells that form solar panels has fallen from 13 percent of global supply to less than 1 percent, while China’s share has soared from less than 1 percent to 67 percent, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
The Biden administration on Wednesday renewed its commitment to dramatically expand solar energy as part of its goal of eliminating carbon emissions from electricity production by 2035. Large investments could increase solar from 3 percent of electricity generation today to 45 percent within three decades, an Energy Department study concluded.
Solar is already the fastest-growing source of new electricity generation in the United States, with power companies relying mostly on panels made by Chinese companies. The Biden administration says the rate of deployment must triple or quadruple if the nation is to hit the 2035 decarbonization goal.
But those plans are now running up against another White House priority: promoting human rights.
Customs and Border Protection this summer began blocking the import of solar panels that it believed could contain materials from Hoshine Silicon, a Chinese company that it said appeared to be coercing workers from the persecuted Uyghur minority by threatening them or restricting their movement.
The Washington Post has reported that the company’s factories in China’s Xinjiang region have participated in state-sponsored programs that place Uyghurs in factory jobs — placements that human rights researchers say workers cannot refuse. Hoshine has declined to comment, and China has denied allegations about forced labor.