About the working group

CEE set up a working group of experts and interested parties in March 2022 which aims to meet monthly to discuss the ethical sourcing of renewable technologies throughout the procurement process for community energy businesses. This working group was initially set up to discuss the ethical procurement of PV panels but intends to continue to explore processes of ethical sourcing for more renewable technologies in the future.

The aims of this group are:

  • To define and discuss issues of difficulties around sourcing slavery-free solar panels (including slavery in the industry and supply chains)
  • To influence the wider sector and share best practice
  • To discuss having a community energy sector policy or recommended practice on the issue and, if agreed, initiate a process to write one

Some areas that we are working on are the curation of all of the known resources within this topic and we are exploring funding opportunities to produce a policy template that is intended to be customised to suit group requirements. We are also exploring the idea of an event to help raise awareness of these issues within the community energy sector and use this to share information on current best practices for procurement.  

 Raising awareness of the issue - Ethical sourcing of PV panels

China currently dominates the production of solar-grade polysilicon, one of the main materials used in the production of Photovoltaic (PV) panels. The mass production of this material is currently linked with the state-sponsored “surplus labour” and “labour transfer” initiatives.

The Sheffield Hallam report published in 2021 reveals the ways forced labour in the Uyghur Region can pervade an entire supply chain and reach deep into international markets” and sets out the damning account of the supply chains of the majority of all the Tier 1 suppliers of PV panels.

The report states that around 2.6 million minoritised citizens have been placed in jobs within the Uyghur Region within an “environment of unprecedented coercion, undergirded by the constant threat of re-education and internment.” These programmes are tantamount to the forcible transfer of populations and enslavement.  

  • "95% of solar modules rely on one primary material – solar-grade polysilicon.
  • Polysilicon manufacturers in the Uyghur Region account for approximately 45% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon supply.
  • All polysilicon manufacturers in the Uyghur Region have reported their participation in labour transfer programmes and/or are supplied by raw materials companies that have.
  • In 2020, China produced an additional 30% of the world’s polysilicon on top of that produced in the Uyghur Region, a significant proportion of which may be affected by forced labour in the Uyghur Region as well."

The Sheffield Hallam report

Currently, there are no independent sources, that we know of, that provide either ethical auditing or carbon lifecycle analysis for PV. We believe that the French state does carbon auditing on PV - you have to meet a given embodied carbon threshold to qualify for the French Feed-in-Tariff - but the findings of this are not public.

It is thought that, as a large proportion of the process of producing PV panels is automated, the use of non-slave labour should not have a high impact on production costs. The reason the sale costs for non-slave labour panels are around 30% higher is due to the fact that the larger brands have not yet opted for ethical production. So, currently, to avoid slave labour you must go to ‘boutique’ brands using EU-sourced polysilicon. These companies cannot compete on price with large corporations and instead tend to have a USP of high efficiency and very low warranted degradation rates. The panels are more expensive due to their high quality not their use of ethically sourced materials.

This additional cost is straining business models for community energy projects and greatly restricting site choices.

If you are interested in this topic and would like to contribute to this discussion please email f.robertson@communityenergyengland.org or if you are a member of CEE follow and contribute to the discussion on our members-only practitioner’s forum.