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academies and other awards. Greeting visitors in the entryway is a huge version of the Ch’an Chu, the Chinese symbol of prosperity–a stone toad gripping a coin the size of a dinner plate in its mouth.

The figure, which is also a symbol of luck, is appropriate. In 2005, when oil prices were volatile and many countries, particularly in Europe, were pushing to cut carbon dioxide emissions, Shi took Suntech public on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2006 he became the seventh-richest man in China, with a net worth of over $1.4 billion, according to Forbes. But the man who made Suntech possible very nearly didn’t get into solar at all.

Shi’s parents, rural farmers left destitute by famines that plagued China in the early 1960s, were forced to give him up for adoption to a close family friend when he was a small child. He excelled at school, ultimately earning a bachelor’s degree in optical science and a master’s in laser physics. Shi applied to study abroad, as many talented students did in China in the late 1980s. He was approved–not for studies in the United States, as he’d expected, but in Australia. Knowing little about the country, he relied on a suggestion from one of his colleagues that he meet Martin Green, the director of the Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence at the University of New South Wales, who was famous for inventing an approach to silicon solar cells that achieved record efficiencies. He applied for a paid research position, but Green “immediately turned me down,” Shi recalls. Instead, Green persuaded him to study for a PhD. He completed the degree in only two and half years, and in 1995 he started work at Pacific Solar, a startup spun out of Green’s lab that was commercializing a new type of thin-film solar cell.

Suntech’s founder and CEO, Zhengrong Shi, poses on a deck outside his office, with the façade in the background.

By 2000, Shi was executive director of the startup, but news about the solar industry’s growth in Europe and Japan made him impatient. “I saw the opportunity of solar booming,” he says. Meanwhile, Pacific Solar’s technology was taking too long to bring to market. “Thin-film at that stage was not quite ready yet,” Shi says. He also saw an opportunity in China, where costs were low and no one “really understood the technology and the industry.” After 10 years abroad, he returned to China and presented a business plan to politicians in charge of the Wuxi New District, a high-tech industrial park about an hour from where he’d grown up. His plan was to make conventional silicon solar panels and do it cheaply. Government officials turned him down, suggesting that even his conservative approach was “one step early,” he recalls. Although venture capitalists and large companies offering joint ventures are common now in China, they were rare at the time. So Shi spent the next 10 months making connections and courting politicians while he, his wife, and their two young children lived off his savings. “The real challenge was convincing local government officials that I could succeed in the solar business and not just in the solar laboratory,” he says. Eventually they offered him $6 million, collected from local state-run businesses, to start Suntech.

Shi kept an eye out for every opportunity to cut costs. He bought used equipment. He helped a Japanese company design a new machine in exchange for a discount. And where he could, he found ways to replace machines with cheaper labor.

The manufacturing methods Shi used to get the company off the ground can still be seen in the factory, which is accessible through doors at the back of the headquarters building. Workers, rather than the expensive robots used in solar factories in Japan and the West, transfer eggshell-thin silicon wafers one by one onto racks that can withstand blazing furnaces where temperatures reach 1,000 °C. The operation could be automated, but human labor costs less and can reduce breakage rates. Machines are used where they’re worth it: at another station, one tests the power output of finished cells with a flash of light before robotic arms place them into bins according to performance. A human crew sorts those cells further, identifying fine gradations in the deep blue color. (All this sorting is done to ensure the consistency of the cells that go into a panel.) In another building, workers weld solar cells together into strips, then align them by eye on a light box to form the rows and columns of cells that make up a complete solar panel. To finish the panels, pairs of workers glue the frames together by hand and clean them off with a rag.

On Demand

When Shi started Suntech in 2001, his timing couldn’t have been better. Solar manufacturing in

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Credits: Brian Bailey, Chen Cao, Tommy McCall
Video by Kevin Bullis, Edited by JR Rost

Tagged: Energy

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