The Biden administration’s push to transition to green energy sources is highly dependent on supply chains from China, according to a new Department of Energy report that comes as the White House has promoted renewables as a way to decrease reliance on Russian oil.
China controls "97 percent of the world’s production of silicon wafers" used in solar panels, "roughly 80 percent of rare earths production and refining" used in wind turbines, and "61 percent of global lithium refining key for battery storage and electric vehicles," according to the DOE report, which studied the supply chains for major alternative energy sources to determine how the administration can promote more domestic production.
The report comes as President Joe Biden is preparing to "call on Congress to deliver on a legislative agenda for clean energy and climate action" during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, according to the White House.
Republicans have urged the Biden administration to ramp up domestic oil production and restart the Keystone pipeline in order to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy, including Russian oil. White House press secretary Jen Psaki pushed back against this on Sunday, arguing that the United States should focus on transitioning to renewable energy sources instead.
"We need to reduce our dependence … on oil in general, and we need to look at other ways of having energy in our country and others," Psaki said on Sunday.
The Biden administration said it is aiming to fully delink the U.S. electricity industry from carbon energy sources by 2035, forecasting in September that at least 40 percent of the sector will shift to solar power.
But according to the Department of Energy report, "the global [photovoltaic] supply chain is almost entirely dependent on ingot and wafers from China," which holds a monopoly on crystalline silicon (c-Si), the dominant technology used to produce solar panels. The report said alternative technologies are unlikely to overtake c-Si within the next decade.
"The concentration of the c-Si supply chain in companies with close ties to China, a country with documented human rights violations and an unpredictable trade relationship with the United States, poses a significant risk of disruption to the c-Si supply chain," said the report.
"Given the rate at which the U.S. economy will need to decarbonize, it is unlikely that any alternate [photovoltaic] technology … could displace c-Si before 2035."
The DOE noted that "many of the other pieces of the module supply chain, such as the manufacturing of production-facility equipment and balance-of-module components (e.g., glass, aluminum frames), are predominantly located in China," and the country "also manufactures a significant share of balance-of-PV-system components … as well as aluminum and steel used for mounting PV modules."
Additionally, China controls 72 percent of the world’s cobalt refining and the production of other rare earth materials used in green energy technologies.
"China’s control of key materials is across the board; China controls roughly 80 percent of rare earths production and refining that are key for components in technologies such as direct drive generators in wind turbines, and China also controls 61 percent of global lithium refining key for battery storage and electric vehicles," said the report. "China also controls 100 percent of the processing of natural graphite used for battery anodes."
China’s solar panel industry has come under fire for its links to the slave labor of Uyghurs. Most of China’s polysilicon, a key component in solar panels, comes from manufacturers that use or benefit from forced labor, according to a report released last year by Sheffield Hallam University’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice.
In December, Congress passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bars imports from China derived from forced labor. Some members of the Biden administration had privately lobbied against the act, including climate envoy John Kerry, due to concerns that it would hinder their climate change policies.
Biden is expected to promote alternative energy in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday by arguing lawmakers should "move even faster to combat climate change—and that to meet the moment and fully seize the economic opportunity in front of us, Congress must act," according to a White House statement on Monday.