An employee performs a final inspection on solar cells on the production line at the Trina Solar Ltd. factory in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, China in 2015. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

China’s Xinjiang region has evolved over the past two decades into a major production hub for many of the companies that supply the world with parts needed to build solar panels.

But new research suggests that much of that work could rely on the exploitation of the region’s Uyghur population and other ethnic and religious minorities, potentially tainting a significant portion of the global supply chain for a renewable energy source critical to combating the climate crisis.

The report published Friday — titled “In Broad Daylight: Uyghur Forced Labor and Global Solar Supply Chains” — presents evidence of a troubling reality: that components for clean energy may be created with dirty coal and forced labor. An advance copy of the report was shared exclusively with CNN Business.

China has repeatedly denied all allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment from CNN Business on the report. But asked Wednesday about allegations that forced labor in Xinjiang has tainted solar panel supply chains, Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying called such claims “an outrageous lie.”

“A few Western countries and anti-China forces went all out to hype up the so-called ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang’s cotton-growing industry. Now they are turning to the solar energy industry. Xinjiang cotton is speckless and solar energy is clean, but those in the US and the West who are hyping up the issue have a dark and sinister intention,” she told reporters. “They are trying to fabricate lies like ‘forced labor’ to create ‘forced industrial decoupling’ and ‘forced unemployment’ in Xinjiang to suppress Chinese companies and industries to serve their malicious agenda to mess up Xinjiang and contain China.”

Allegations have been raised before that forced labor in Xinjiang has been used to produce polysilicon, a key component for making solar panels. But this latest research indicates that the practice is also used in the mining and processing of quartz, the raw material at the very start of the solar panel supply chain.

“The global demand for solar energy has encouraged Chinese companies to go to great lengths to make our climate responsibility as inexpensive as possible,” the report states, “but it comes at great cost to the workers who labor at the origin of the supply chain.”

The report was co-authored by Laura Murphy, professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University, and supply chain analyst Nyrola Elimä, who lived in the Uyghur region for 19 years. CNN previously reported on Elimä’s family’s case in Xinjiang, where her cousin has been sent to an internment camp. The report was compiled with the help of “forced labor and supply chain experts fluent in Chinese, Uyghur and English.” It cites hundreds of publicly available corporate disclosures, government statements, state media articles, social media posts, industry reports and satellite imagery, and details their investigation into more than 30 solar products companies to determine whether they may be exposed to forced labor in their supply chains.

For years, the US government has claimed that up to two million Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang have been imprisoned in re-education camps. Western governments and human rights organizations have alleged that minorities in the region have been subjected to physical abuse, attempted indoctrination and forced labor. Many industries — including tech, agriculture and the hair trade — have faced claims that their supply chains are compromised. Beijing, meanwhile, has repeatedly denied human rights abuses in the region, saying its facilities there are “vocational training centers” where people learn job skills, Chinese language and laws.

This May 2019 photo shows a watchtower at a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan, in China's northwestern Xinjiang region.

The report will likely draw additional scrutiny to China’s outsized role in the global solar power industry. The country has between 71% and 97% of the world’s capacity for various solar panel components, according to market research firm Bernreuter Research. Xinjiang alone produces nearly half of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon, and is home to factories for some of the industry’s biggest players.

Meanwhile, many countries are betting on solar as a critical form of renewable energy as they work to transition away from more polluting power sources. Renewable energy, led by solar power, could make up 80% of the growth in electricity generation over the next decade, according to an October report from the International Energy Agency.

Over the next decade, three times as much solar capacity is expected to be deployed in the United States as was installed by the end of 2020. In the European Union, power generated from renewable sources such as wind and solar surpassed that from fossil fuels for the first time last year, and solar deployment growth is expected to continue.

Revelations of the industry’s alleged ties to forced labor in Xinjiang could have huge consequences for those plans. There could also be implications for consumers and corporations that want to contribute to a greener future but may be unwittingly buying products that contain components made with forced labor and from electricity produced by burning dirty coal.

Solar panel companies in Xinjiang create “green energy by consuming cheap, carbon-emitting coal,” the report states. They also “sacrifice human labour conditions in the bargain,” it adds.

‘This wasn’t their way of life’

Over the past four years, the Chinese government has faced numerous allegations that it runs huge, fortified internment centers in Xinjiang. Former detainees have told CNN they experienced political indoctrination and abuse inside the camps, such as food and sleep deprivation.

On January 19, the outgoing Trump administration declared the Chinese government was committing genocide in Xinjiang. Western parliaments have also passed similar motions despite opposition from their leaders.

A street near a mosque in Xinjiang, China, Aug. 5, 2019.

China has also been previously accused of facilitating forced labor. US Customs and Border Protection recently blocked imports of cotton, tomato and hair products made in Xinjiang over concerns about forced labor, and the United Kingdom and European Union are considering similar restrictions.

The Chinese government is open about operating what it calls “surplus labor” programs, which facilitate relocations of minority workers in Xinjiang to industrial centers. By the Chinese Communist Party’s own count, such programs have systematically relocated millions of citizens from rural towns and farms in Xinjiang to factories within the region and around the country to work in labor-intensive industries.

Beijing says the programs are necessary for alleviating poverty and tamping down religious extremism. But the researchers who compiled the report on solar panels said they are rooted in a darker truth.

“You have to understand that there’s really rabid racism in Xinjiang,” said Murphy, of Sheffield Hallam University. “The basic premise of these poverty alleviation programs is that Uyghur people cannot get themselves out of poverty, or that they want to be impoverished because they’ve been ideologically programmed to believe it’s better.”

The “labor transfer” programs also provide cheap labor to solar panel components suppliers, according to the report.

Murphy and Elimä said people from small Uyghur villages are forced to move hundreds or thousands of miles to do intense manual labor in industrial centers. After being relocated to work sites, adult couples are sometimes housed in dorm-like bunks with other workers, the report states, citing state media articles about surplus labor programs.

“This wasn’t their way of life before,” Elimä said. “We have our home, our garden, we’re living with our parents or sister … and now suddenly, someone is living in one city, their parents living in a nursing home, kids in a separate orphanage. What is going on here?”

Uyghur and other minority workers could put themselves and their families at risk of detention in an internment camp if they turn down or leave these labor placements, according to the report.

Tainted supply chains

One company, Xinjiang Hoshine Silicon Industry, is presented as a “case study” in the report for the trickle-down effect of alleged forced labor on the entire solar panel supply chain. Hoshine is the world’s largest producer of metallurgical-grade silicon, a component created from mined and crushed quartz which is then sold to leading polysilicon makers.

The Chinese government places “surplus” rural workers at Hoshine’s factories, the report states. It cites a Chinese state media article from 2017 in which a local government agency said its surplus labor training program could provide 5,000 workers for the company.

Hoshine has also received compensation from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) — a state-run, paramilitary corporate conglomerate in the region that operates similarly to a prefectural government — for training it provided to “rural surplus laborers,” according to the report. The US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control last year issued sanctions against the XPCC “in connection with serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities” in Xinjiang.

Government recruitment efforts on the company’s “behalf depend on coercive strategies that suggest non-voluntary labor,” the report states.