China's 'Sun King' Aims to Lead Shift to Solar Power
Reports that China will soon overtake the United States as the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases have attracted much concern.
But there's another side of the story. China is investing as much money in alternative energy sources as wealthier nations, such as Germany. China is aiming to generate 16 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
Suntech Power Holdings Co., Ltd., is one of China's leading entrepreneurial businesses in the renewable energy field.
The factory floor of Suntech, located in east China's Wuxi City, buzzes with a kind of clean efficiency. High-tech manufacturing requires a spotless environment.
The efficiency comes from the young workers, soldering the photovoltaic cells together to make solar panels. They know they're on the cusp of something big. Suntech is already the world's third largest maker of solar cells, and it's aiming for No. 1.
Nobody's more surprised at Suntech's success than its founder, Shi Zhengrong, 44. The media has dubbed him China's "Sun King."
"I got into this field as a scholar," says Shi. "I never thought using solar energy could be made into a commercial product that could benefit mankind. I just though it was something on which I could research and write papers about."
Shi got his PhD. in engineering in Australia in 1996, founded Suntech in 2000, and listed it on the Nasdaq in 2005. Suntech's market capitalization is now more than $6 billion, and Shi owns 40 percent of the shares. China doesn't mint billionaires much faster than that.
The problem is that Suntech won't have many customers at home, until the Chinese government starts subsidizing solar energy. Suntech exports 90 percent of its products to countries that do subsidize, like Germany and Japan. Shi says he's lobbying Chinese officials as hard as he can.
"I ask them, 'You think solar is expensive, but do you have any choice? What are you going to use when you've burned up all the coal?'" he says. "We must educate policymakers and give them a sense of urgency."
Officials see it this way: a kilowatt hour of electricity made with coal costs about 4 cents in China. The same amount made from solar energy costs nearly 10 times this much. Electricity from wind energy costs about double, so China's government has recently introduced subsidies — and investment in wind farms has taken off.
In Beijing, Wang Wenjing, a solar energy expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, says he thinks that solar subsidies are only a year or two away.
"The lack of government policy is constraining the use of solar energy," he says. "If the government would just come out with a policy, I'm certain China could very quickly become the world's largest user of solar energy."
Consumption is one area in which China leads in the use of solar energy, despite the lack of subsidies.
Solar panels are affixed to roofs all over Beijing's lanes and alleyways. The panels are usually connected to a drum of water, indicating that they're probably used to heat water.
Wang Jiahong, a 56-year-old engineer, bought her solar water heater a couple years ago for the equivalent of $310. The solar panels are attached to a 40-gallon water tank. She says that it was a big investment, but it's paid off since.
"Even when it's well below freezing in winter, as long as there's sun, the water can be heated to as high as 120 degrees," she says. "If you get a week of cloudy days, it has electric wires to heat the water."
Sure enough, the water from Wang's kitchen faucet is scalding hot.
Analysts say that environmentally conscious Chinese, like Wang, are putting increasing pressure on the government to promote solar energy. And Shi at Suntech is convinced that time and economics are on his side.
"What does it take to generate electricity with solar energy? The equipment is silicon — the second most plentiful element on earth. What's the fuel? Sunshine — that's free. So, now tell me, why shouldn't solar become one of the world's primary energy sources?" Shi asks.
In a few years, he predicts, investment in silicon will lower its price and the cost of making his products. Eventually, the cost of making electricity from solar energy will pull even with the cost of making it from coal, he says.
Shi is positioning his company so that when that day comes, Suntech will shine.
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