The shady side of solar energy: Danish solar energy may be built on Chinese forced labour
The shady side of solar energy: Danish solar energy may be built on Chinese forced labour
Located just west of the southern Jutland town of Aabenraa, lies Hjolderup.
A small village of a dozen households, surrounded by open expanses as far as the eye can see.
But where there used to be green and yellow fields of rye, maize and grass, is now instead a black sea of solar panels on metre-high steel poles.
As many as 340 hectares have been set aside for thousands of solar cells, which together will make up Northern Europe's largest solar park.
There is an objective behind these solar cells: To accelerate Denmark's green transition and for Denmark to become independent of Russian gas, politicians will quadruple the production of Danish solar and wind energy.
But the solar cells surrounding Hjolderup come with a drawback.
More than 5,000 kilometres away from the small village in southern Jutland, in Xinjiang province in China, the essential raw materials for solar cells may be produced by companies using forced labour.
And the solar farm in Hjolderup is not alone.
Several large Danish solar farms have the same ties.
This has come to light through access to documentation and the investigation of energy companies' suppliers and subcontractors, which Danwatch conducted in cooperation with TV 2.
Danwatch and TV 2's investigation revealed that it was mainly the two large Danish energy companies Better Energy and European Energy that get their solar cells from Chinese companies whose subcontractors use the controversial Chinese work programmes in Xinjiang.
Researchers have evidence that the labour programmes involve forced labour and are part of China's systematic oppression of the Muslim Uyghur people.
The Danish energy companies acknowledge that the Uyghur population is subjected to human rights violations in Xinjiang, which they describe as appalling.
Yet there may be a risk that the raw materials in European Energy's solar cells are made from forced labour, says European Energy's press officer Thomas Beck Sørensen in an interview with Operation X, who Danwatch has collaborated with.
"I fully recognise the risk of that."
Better Energy, on the other hand, explains that they trust their suppliers when they say that there are no materials sourced from Xinjiang in their solar cells.
However, neither the Chinese suppliers nor Better Energy can guarantee that this is the case.
"It is currently impossible for us to obtain documentation, but through our thorough review of bill-of-materials and close dialogue with our suppliers, we feel confident that there are no raw materials from Xinjiang in the products we purchase," says Better Energy's Communications Manager, Christian Bergmann Mølgaard.
Who is European Energy
- European Energy is a Danish energy company that develops, builds and sells wind and solar projects.
- The energy company is behind Northern Europe's largest solar plant in Hjolderup, but is also active throughout Europe, Brazil, the USA, Canada and Australia.
- In 2020, European Energy had a turnover of just over 1.4 billion DKK.
- European Energy was founded in 2004 by Mikael D. Pedersen and Knud Erik Andersen.
- European Energy's headquarter is in Søborg, where more than 100 employees work.
Who is Better Energy
- Better Energy is also a Danish energy company that exclusively develops, builds, operates and owns solar parks.
- The energy company is behind a number of large solar plants in Denmark, including one in Holstebro owned by Denmark's second richest man Anders Holch Povlsen.
- In 2021, Better Energy launched the construction of 450 MW of solar farms, equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of around 350,000 Danes.
- Better Energy had a turnover of almost 1.6 billion in 2021.
- Better Energy has offices in Copenhagen, Sønderborg, Malmö and Warsaw.
Forced labour in the solar mecca
Today, the country for solar cells is China.
In just 15 years, the country has gone from having virtually no production to having taken over the entire supply chain of a solar cell to such an extent that it now totally dominates the market .
In 2019, four out of five solar cells were produced in China.
In the last five years in particular, China's takeover of the solar industry has accelerated at a breakneck speed.
From the extraction and processing of materials to the production of the solar cell itself, China is the supplier.
The question is at what price.
Since the beginning of 2021, there have been reports of forced labour through state-run work programs in the Chinese solar industry.
The first report on the issue came in January 2021 from the US consultancy Horizon Advisory, and in May 2021 out came the report
"In Broad Daylight: Uyghur Forced Labour and Global Solar Supply Chains" from Sheffield Hallam University in England.
In the latter report, a research team examined more than 30 solar cell manufacturers in China and their use of the work programmes by reviewing hundreds of publicly available sources such as published company and government statements, government media articles, social media posts, industry reports and satellite images.
The conclusion was that almost all of China's solar industry is exposed to forced labour.
The cause can be found in China's western Xinjiang province, where a large part of the raw materials in solar cells are produced.
This is particularly true of polysilicon, a dark grey, highly lustrous substance that emits electrons when exposed to sunlight.
Maersk and Heartland's response
A.P Møller - Maersk has made an agreement to buy power from European Energy's solar farm in Hjolderup.
In an email, the company says its suppliers must "respect and implement our Supplier Code of Conduct" on human rights and labour conditions.
"If there is any doubt about whether a (...) supplier is complying with our Supplier Code of Conduct, we will initiate a dialogue with them to explain the situation and to address it," writes Jacob Sterling, Head of Ocean Decarbonisation and Innovation.
Heartland states that they were informed by Risen Energy that they had no ties to Xinjiang and ordered the solar cells prior to Laura Murphy's report.
"That here could be a potential connection of a subcontractor to another subcontractor presents a challenge, and we would of course encourage other companies that continue to operate in the market of solar cells to be aware of the report and ensure their due diligence accordingly," writes Ninna Høgholdt, manager at Heartland.
According to the report, every company in Xinjiang that produces materials for the solar industry is either involved in the work programmes or supplies a company that is engaged in them.
And these provincial manufacturers supply some of the largest solar module producers worldwide, with far-reaching consequences, explains report co-author Laura Murphy, Professor of Human Rights and Modern Slavery at Sheffield Hallam University.
"That means we're buying products all over the world that we know have proven supply chains connected with forced labour in Xinjiang."
The Danish solar undertaking is currently dominated by two companies.
One is Better Energy, which last year had a turnover of almost 1.6 billion DKK, and the other is European Energy, which in 2020 had a turnover of just over 1.4 billion DKK.
Since the reports on forced labour were published last year, both companies have built solar panels in the Danish environment.
A file from Energinet shows that in the period from 2021 to today Better Energy has built four solar plants, including one at Tved near Svendborg, which was recently launched and it consists of over 70,000 solar cells.
Meanwhile, European Energy is behind the plant in Hjolderup in southern Jutland, which will supply power to Maersk's new CO2-neutral ships.
What these parks have in common is that they are built with solar cells from either Chinese Trina Solar, Ja Solar or Risen Energy, the file shows.
All three have agreements in writing to buy materials from companies in Xinjiang that use forced labour.
More specifically, the Hjolderup plant contains solar cells from Trina Solar, while the solar cells in Better Energy's plant are primarily from Ja Solar.
In one case, Better Energy has also used solar cells from Risen Energy in a plant in Holstebro built for Heartland, owned by Denmark's second richest man Anders Holch Povlsen.
Regarding the likelihood that the solar cells in the Danish solar PV systems may have been produced using work programmes, Laura Murphy is absolutely clear on the matter:
"If the Chinese suppliers who deliver to Denmark get materials from Xinjiang, then the solar cells are with one hundred percent certainty made using forced labour. If they also get materials from elsewhere in China, you still can't be sure as a Danish company that they don't come from Xinjiang."
Trina Solar wrote in an email to TV2 and Danwatch that they do not tolerate forced labour and that their suppliers must sign a so-called 'code of conduct'.
They also write that the work programmes have not been shown to involve forced labour.
Neither Risen Energy nor Ja Solar have responded to our enquiries.
From China to Denmark
In recent years, the Chinese government has faced numerous allegations of serious human rights violations against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang province.
While China adamantly denies all allegations and calls their actions against the people of the province counter-terrorism, a steady stream of reports, accounts from refugee citizens and journalistic investigations document the systematic repression of the Uyghurs.
Most central to Beijing's hard line in Xinjiang has been the creation of hundreds of detention camps in the province.
In 2019, via a huge leak of Chinese government documents - the so-called "China cables" - mass surveillance and the mass detention of ethnic minorities without trial, and in May this year another huge leak, this time "The Xinjiang Police Files", also document the widespread oppression in the province.
"We are talking about hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ordinary citizens sent to camps basically for belonging to another ethnic group with the aim of completely destroying them and their culture," says anthropologist and one of the world's leading researchers on the human rights situation in Xinjiang Adrian Zenz.
Several organisations have the same assumption: up to a million people have most likely been imprisoned in the camps, where everyday life, according to numerous testimonies, consists of torture, sterilisation and indoctrination into the "correct Chinese mindset".
In addition to the camps, thousands of mosques and religious symbols have beencompletely distroyed while the Chinese government monitors the inhabitants of Xinjiang via an app on their phones.
Rune Steenberg, an anthropologist at Palacky University Olomouci in the Czech Republic who has studied the Uyghurs for several years, describes the situation as "direct vicious state repression".
"The Chinese government's human rights abuses in Xinjiang go far beyond anything I ever imagined I would witness," says Steenberg.
He is backed by several experts, organisations and now also several countries.
The US Government call the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang as outright genocide, and a number of Western governments boycotted the Winter Olympics over human rights abuses in China.
Frygten for internering
Eksperterne beskriver også de statsstyrede arbejdsprogrammer i Xinjiang som et middel til at undertrykke uighurerne.
Den kinesiske regering er helt åbne om at drive og sponsorere programmerne i provinsen, der i korte træk går ud på at flytte millioner af uighurer og andre etniske minoriteter fra deres hjem til store industricentre som en slags billig arbejdskraft.
I 2020 udgav Kinas regering blandt andet en rapport, hvori det fremgik, at 2,6 millioner fattige mennesker var blevet forflyttet til at arbejde på gårde og fabrikker i Xinjiang.
Styret i Beijing beskriver programmerne som nødvendige for at bekæmpe fattigdom og dæmpe religiøs ekstremisme, men ifølge forskere involverer de tvangsarbejde.
“Folk har reelt ikke mulighed for at sige nej til tilbuddet om at deltage i arbejdsprogrammerne, og det er dét, vi forstår ved tvangsarbejde, fortæller professor Laura Murphy med henvisning til Den Internationale Arbejdsorganisations (ILO) definition af tvangsarbejde.
Den manglende valgfrihed skyldes især den latente trussel om internering, forklarer Rune Steenberg.
“Fordi der er så mange, der er blevet interneret i Xinjiang, og der har været så voldsomt et pres på uighurerne, så ved de udmærket godt, hvad det betyder, hvis de siger nej. Det kan betyde, at man en uge eller to senere bliver interneret eller fængslet”.
In addition, a report from Nankai University in China, which was paid for by the Chinese government itself, shows that the work programmes are designed to degrade the Uyghurs' indigenous culture by removing them from their villages.
The report states that the work programmes are "an important method of influencing and assimilating Uyghur minorities" and that relocating them to other places in the region or to other Chinese provinces "reduces the population density of Uyghurs".
The Chinese Embassy in Denmark denied to Danwatch and TV2 the accusations of the repression of Uyghurs and forced labour in Xinjiang.
The problems in Xinjiang province are about counter-terrorism, they argue, which is why the Chinese government has launched education and economic growth programmes as part of a long-term counter-terrorism programme.
"There is no "forced labour" in Xinjiang, only free choice in the labour market, and workers' rights are protected under the law.
These facts should also be told to the Danish public", the embassy wrote in an email.
Admitting a problem
Both European Energy and Better Energy state in their sustainability reports that they respect human rights.
"We are opposed to all forms of slavery, forced labour, human trafficking, illegal child labour and human rights abuses in our construction and operations", says European Energy's 2021 Sustainability Report, for example.
Both companies also state that they are committed to the UN Guidelines on Human Rights and Business, also known as the UNGP.
The UNGP helps to ensure that companies do not contribute to human rights abuses, and this, in principle, applies throughout the supply chain - from the very first link in the chain to the use of the end product.
But in conversation with Operation X, who Danwatch has worked together with, European Energy press officer Thomas Beck Sørensen says that their supplier Trina Solar gets the materials from many suppliers, and they cannot track where the different materials end up despite their UNGP commitment.
"We have to admit that we do not have the most comprehensive insight into the lower rungs in our supply chain. And of course, we must have that", admits Thomas Beck Sørensen.
They have therefore decided, as a consequence of the report from Sheffield Hallam University, that they will not work with anyone who has facilities located in Xinjiang province in the future, he says.
"We're going to say: It's your job to prove exactly where these sources come from," says Thomas Beck Sørensen.
How we did it
- In collaboration with TV2 and Operation X, Danwatch has investigated Better Energy and Europeans Energy's ties to forced labour in Xinjiang.
- Via access to documents and the two reports from the American consultancy Horizon Advisor and Sheffield Hallam University respectively, we have mapped the Danish energy companies' suppliers and subcontractors.
- We would have liked to visit the factories in Xinjiang ourselves to confirm our information, but the province is virtually hermetically sealed off from the world, and to journalists in particular.
- Instead, we have presented our documentation to several experts on the situation in Xinjiang.
- We have also submitted documentation of the supply chain to the two Danish energy companies, who have confirmed that they are getting solar cells from either Trina Solar, Ja Solar or Risen Energy.
- As part of the investigation, Danwatch has also been to the UK and the Netherlands to talk to two sources from Xinjiang who can tell us about the repression of the Uyghur people in the province.
- One of them is Erbaqyt Otarbai,
- who was interned in an internment camp, and the other is Qalbinur Sidik, who was forcibly posted as a teacher, also in an internment camp.
Better Energy has also read the report and sees no reason to doubt the evidence presented.
Therefore, they can't "absolve their Chinese suppliers at all", says Better Energy communications manager Christian Bergmann Mølgaard.
Nevertheless, they feel confident that the materials in the solar cells they buy from suppliers cannot be traced back to the province.
"We are confident that there are no materials from Xinjiang in the solar panels we buy," says Christian Bergmann Mølgaard.
He explains that they take the issue very seriously, and that their work with suppliers in China is about building trustworthy personal relationships where requirements can be outlined for where the materials in the solar cells come from.
They say they have succeeded in this, and they trust the word of their suppliers.
However, they cannot guarantee that the solar cells are completely untied to Xinjiang.
The main reason is because of the Chinese anti-sanctions law that was adopted by the Chinese government last year.
In practice, the law prohibits Chinese companies from commenting on the activities of subcontractors and from making either negative or positive statements about Xinjiang.
It is therefore effectively impossible to give guarantees or provide proof of the origin of the materials.
"Documentation and transparency all the way back to the raw materials is currently impossible due to Chinese legislation," says Christian Bergmann Mølgaard.
What basis do you really have for trusting the word of your Chinese suppliers when a law forbids them to share information with you and when they do not acknowledge what is happening in Xinjiang? For example, does Trina Solar believe that there is no forced labour in the provinces at all?
"We do not rely on official statements. We may have some other types of conversations with our suppliers. And prior to purchasing, we receive, among other things, a bill-of-materials that contains lists of subcontractors, including information on the location of the factories. This allows us to say with a high degree of certainty where the parts come from."
However, the bill-of-materials only applies to polysilicon and no further back in the supply chain, where forced labour also takes place.
Experts: ethically indefensible
Better Energy and European Energy's dealings with the Chinese companies are criticised by several experts.
The criticism is that energy companies are helping to rubber-stamp the Chinese regime's stranglehold on Xinjiang when they buy solar cells from suppliers with links to Uyghur forced labour.
Even if their solar cells may not be linked to forced labour.
"Just because there are allegedly no raw materials from Xinjiang in the Danish companies solar cells, they are still dealing with a company that has no problem using materials from there for other clients. I think that's ethically wrong," says Laura Murphy, a professor at Sheffield Hallam University.
Anthropologist Rune Steenberg also criticises the ethics of the Danish companies.
According to him, they are helping to support the Chinese regime's repression of the Uyghur people.
"It's not ethical because you're supporting companies that are involved in the area and producing unethically," says Rune Steenberg, which is backed by Adrian Zenz.
"In a way, companies - either directly or indirectly - are helping to finance the business of China's repression. That's a big ethical problem," says Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
Faced with criticism, Better Energy's head of communications Christian Bergmann Mølgaard says the researchers are right in principle.
But in practice they depend on buying solar cells for a number of years to come, and it is next to impossible to avoid China.
"We can go into great detail about our own supply chain and demand that we don't want solar cells with materials from Xinjiang, but I don't think any sole company can be responsible for what happens in the province," says Christian Bergmann Mølgaard.
European Energy wrote in an email that their suppliers must sign an agreement sating that they do not use forced labour, and they claim that from the beginning their approach has been to put pressure to stop forced labour through the means of dialogue.
"As a result of this approach, we see a lot of things going in the right direction at the moment," wrote European Energy press officer Thomas Beck Sørensen in an email.
But the experts don't buy it. In their view, companies should stop their agreements with Chinese suppliers.
"I think Western companies really need to understand the seriousness of the situation in Xinjiang, both in the extent of forced labour and in the severity of repression. The evidence is all there. And therefore the only ethical choice is to stop doing business with companies with links to Xinjiang," says Adrian Zenz.
Laura Murphy has the same conclusion.
"With everything that's going on in the province, and with all the restrictions on making sure that as a company you don't get products made with forced labour, the only solution is to stop the collaboration," she says.
"I think it's very simple. Companies should stop buying from suppliers who get material from Xinjiang, whether it goes into their products or not."
Continuing purchases from China
Back in Denmark, the development of solar farms is gathering speed.
An inventory conducted in 2021 by the analysis firm Kaas and Mulvad for TV2 shows that there are plans to build solar farms on a scale that will together correspond to more than the entire area of the Danish island of Møn.
Like the solar farm in Hjolderup, the new plants will potentially include solar cells from China, informs Better Energy and European Energy.
Despite the uncertainty about the conditions behind Chinese solar cells, none of them plan to stop their imports of solar cells from Chinese companies with links to Xinjiang.
For 53-year-old Qalbinur Sidik, it's not good enough. In 2017, she was interned to forced labour as a teacher in two of Xinjiang's reeducation camps for Uyghur people, where she witnessed brainwashing, rape of female prisoners, forced sterilisation and systematic torture.
Although she has now fled to Europe - far from the regime that sterilised her back in 2017 - the horrors she experienced then have still remain.
Wearing a traditional Uyghur folk costume, she meets Danwatch in a meeting room in the Netherlands to tell her story.
Here she says she is outraged that Danish companies are buying solar panels with links to forced labour in the province and country she managed to leave.
"Danish companies know that China is involved in a genocide. It is something the whole world knows. They know that China is killing Uyghurs in Xinjiang and that China is using forced labour. Yet they still use products that have those ties," says Qalbinur Sidik.
"I believe it is wrong to use any form of forced labour and would like Danish companies to stop buying such products".