The True Cost of Chinese Solar Panels: Part 3

By Brian Lombardozzi

The human cost of blind consumption, explored.

The third in a series of blog posts about the Chinese solar panel industry. Read the first and second installments.

Despite U.S. tariffs placed on Chinese solar imports in 2012, $1.5 billion arrived in 2013 – up from $21.3 million in 2005. This has been considered a boon to solar’s proliferation across the U.S. But again, trade that ignores the conditions of production supports, quietly but irrefutuably, the environmental and human costs of unrealistically cheap products.

Those costs are myriad. First, consider that labor rights violations in China have been welldocumented. From the use of sweatshops and child labor to forced labor prison camps, labor laws in China often go unenforced as national and local governments pursue breakneck economic growth. Investigations by the Laogai Research Foundation have documented hazardous working conditions in prison camps, including “mining asbestos without protective gear, battery acid being handled without gloves,” and vats of chemicals being stirred by naked individuals standing in them. And without proper and consistent monitoring and auditing of the supplier and its supply chain, it is impossible to know whether products are being produced ethically and sustainably in China.

This photo from the Laogai Research Foundation shows slave laborers working naked in a vat of chemicals in China’s Qinghai Province.
Source: Laogai: The Machinery of Repression in China, 2009.

But, as noted in my previous posts, incredibly lax environmental controls are the rule, not the exception, in China, and they’re often complicit in stamping out dissent by its own citizens. Here are a pair of examples of that in practice.

Jinko Solar Company: “The factory has been polluting us all the while …”

In September 2011, Chinese villagers in Haining, Zhejiang Province staged a mass three-day protest of a nearby Jinko Solar factory after the death of a large number of fish in the local water supply. Jinko Solar, which made solar panels for export and is a subsidiary of the publicly traded Jinko Solar Holding Company, had been previously found to be “discharging excessive pollutants” and was ordered to fix the problem, but was still allowed to operate.

A local business owner said “pollution in the area had been very common, as factories, mostly those specializing in solar panels and related technology, flourished …”

The plant was temporarily shut down, but the efforts of local officials were largely targeted at quelling the protests. Residents accused riot police of “heavy-handed tactics” after protesters were beat up and arrested. An elderly local woman noted, “The factory has been polluting us all this while and now that we make some noise, the government shuts us up,” an elderly local woman noted. "[The government, police, and companies] are all in this together, now we just have to die here silently. You can see all these riot police here; we are just helpless villagers.”

The company resumed production the next month, after refuting allegations that the toxic waste had resulted in casualties. "So far, we have not had any cancellation of orders," a company executive said on a conference call.

The Story of How Xianghe Chemical Factory Poisoned a Local Community

Located in Hunan Province along the Liuyang River, Xianghe Chemical Factory produced extremely toxic metals like cadmium and indium, both used the production and manufacture of solar panels. But two years after the factory was shuttered, thousands of villagers in Hunan were “still living in the shadow of one of the worst pollution scandals on the mainland,” reported the South China Morning Post. “The factory had been illegally producing indium since 2004 without necessary safety facilities for dealing with the toxic waste, which was discharged, untreated, into the Liuyang River.”

Three out of four villagers suffer from excessive levels of cadmium in their blood. Cadmium damages the kidneys and the liver and, found the newspaper, “can cause cancer and failure of the nervous system and lungs.… The villagers are struggling to cope with their illnesses without proper medical support, let alone fair compensation.”

Clinical autopsies on part-time Xianghe Chemical Factory workers showed “they died of brain damage and multiple organ failure, including their lungs, liver and kidneys, caused by acute cadmium poisoning.”

Villagers say most others died in similar circumstances, severely weakened and in agony, after their bodies, too, became riddled with cadmium and indium, a chemical used to make solar panels and liquid crystal displays.

Ouyang Jinfu, “who used to work at the factory, which stood within 50 metres of his home, has been poisoned, as has his wife and daughter-in-law, by life-threatening metals – notably cadmium and indium.  His greatest fears are for his grandson, Yuwang.”

“‘Yuwang was diagnosed with nephritis [a serious disease in which the kidneys become inflamed] two years ago, and now he has shown symptoms of intellectual deterioration. He can't even count from one to 10,’ said the grandfather.”

Villagers are still trying to figure out what to do with their lives, as they have been told “that their farmland may not be suitable for growing crops for at least three decades.… Medical experts have also warned that the harmful effects of heavy metals could last for up to 30 years once absorbed into their bodies.”

How to Respond

The economic, health, and environmental burdens placed on some of China’s most vulnerable communities is too high a price for solar panels when alternatives exist that are fairly and safely produced in the United States. Tomorrow, we’ll explore what can be done about it.

Much of this has been made possible by the excellent research skills of Michael Mignano and Erin Kelly.

Editor's Note:

On Tuesday, President Obama addressed the United Nations Climate Summit, where he challenged China directly to curb its world-leading global gas emissions, and noted that his administration had spent political capital rolling out new Environmental Protection Agency rules to unilaterally curb American carbon emissions. Speaking directly after the president's address, Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli said his country would "make an even greater effort to address climate change and take on international responsibilities that are commensurate with our national conditions." 

Not everyone is convinced by that rhetoric, though:

There were indications that China might be ready with its own plan, although many experts say they will be skeptical until Chinese officials reveal the details.

You can count us among the skeptics.