China's Richest Man: A Solar Magnate

Last month, we reported that China's (and the world's) richest woman built her wealth on recycling. In another sign of the country's shift from red to green, its wealthiest man (by some estimates) is making a windfall on solar energy. While Shi Zhengrong, the founder and CEO of Wuxi-based Suntech Power, is known as the richest man on the mainland or just China's wealthiest energy magnate, his Australian citizenship means he cannot hold the title of the richest Chinese man according to Forbes (that just went to Huang Guangyu, an electronics entrepreneur). But that's a technicality, and who's counting anyway?

What counts more are the waves Shi's making in China. Since 2005, when Shi's Suntech became the first hi-tech Chinese company to make an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange, on the strength of his business savvy and commitment to innovation, the company's revenue has zoomed to $226 million last year from just $14 million in 2003 (it's made $218 million so far this year). These days, analysts count Suntech as one of the world's top ten producers of photo-voltaic (PV) cells, with a new U.S. subsidiary and a dramatic cost advantage: its high-efficiency solar modules go for $3.78 a watt, well below the average global market price of $4.30. Shi's story is a nice healthy reminder for China and everyone else of the link between green innovation and green backs, and proof of how fast solar energy is bounding out from the fringes and into the sunlight.Currently, most of Suntech's solar cells are sent to the global solar market, where demand has reached 5 gigawatts (the world can only supply enough silicon to supply between 2.2 and 2.4 gigawatts currently). But Suntech is making over half of China's solar panels, which are sometimes the only feasible energy option for some of the countries' rural locales. As the International Energy Agency reminded us last week with its projections that China would overtake the U.S. in CO2 emissions in 2009—a decade sooner than expected—coal and oil remain the country's top energy sources for its mega-development.

But as green investments surpass even the country's dramatic GDP growth, and more companies take advantage of the subsidies offered under China's renewable energy law, the country's current installed capacity of 75 megawatts (MW) is expected to reach 450 MW by 2010, according to Solar Plaza, an independent PV organization based in Rotterdam. Meanwhile, the demand for solar systems has been growing 40 percent annually worldwide. As Shi said last year, "The potential for this market is unlimited."

Shi's not just an example for China (and everywhere); affordable and cutting-edge technologies like his could also help to power, quite literally, sustainable growth in other developing countries ,where fossil-fueling infrastructure just doesn't exist. That's rich.

: : Wall Street Journal; : : Hurun's China Energy Rich List;
: : Worldwatch; : : Hurun Interview with Shi Zhengrong