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China was almost nonexistent, so he had little domestic competition. At the same time, the market worldwide was starting to grow. Price incentives for solar power that the German parliament authorized in 2000 were just going into effect (see “The German Experiment”); after those subsidies were increased in 2004, Germany became the world’s largest market for solar panels and Suntech’s biggest source of revenue.

China’s Progress
Source: Photon Consulting
*For the lowest-cost manufacturers in each country

As other governments introduced their own incentives for installing renewable sources of energy, demand soared, and builders began taking a chance on the cheap solar panels coming out of China. “In 2005 and 2006, I couldn’t get solar panels,” says Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Akeena Solar, a solar installer and one of Suntech’s first customers in California. “Demand was way bigger than supply. Any company, anywhere in the world, that could make a piece of glass with wires on it that generated electricity when the sun hit it could sell as many as they wanted.” Not only could Suntech meet his demand, but it was willing to accommodate Akeena’s requests. “What was interesting about Suntech was they were willing to build a specially designed solar panel for us,” he says. “Nobody else would do it.”

In the years after Shi founded Suntech, the total number of watts produced by the solar industry doubled roughly every two years. Suntech stayed ahead of the curve, doubling its own production on average every year until 2009, when the recession slowed things down. This year its production is likely to grow by 100 percent yet again; the company will employ 12,000 workers. The government recently made Suntech eligible for $7.3 billion in loans through the Chinese Development Bank to fund even more expansion.

Meanwhile, hundreds of other solar companies have been founded in China, and several have become major suppliers worldwide. Yingli Green Energy, based near Beijing, has an even bigger share of the California market than Suntech, though it produces fewer panels overall. It also has even lower costs. Others, such as JA Solar, Trina Solar, and China Sunergy, are rapidly gaining brand recognition worldwide. Much of the industry can be traced back to Green and his lab in New South Wales; former students of his are key leaders in companies that together produce 60 percent of the solar panels made in China. But if Green supplied much of the technical training, he credits Shi with the business savvy to help create the nation’s booming industry. “Former students have had a big impact in China,” he says. But, he adds, “I would give all the credit to Zhengrong Shi for blazing the trail the others have followed.”

Green Tricks

When he founded Suntech, Shi knew that it was possible to manufacture solar cells nearly twice as powerful as the ones that rolled off the line of his first factory. Green had been making them for years in his lab. If you alter the electronic properties of the very highest-grade silicon wafers in precise patterns and then trace extremely fine electrical contacts on their front and back surfaces to extract electronic current, the resulting cells capture much more of that current than conventional cells do. The only problem is that Green’s methods rely on advanced and expensive processing technology borrowed from the semiconductor industry. The cells cost about 100 times as much to make as conventional solar cells like the ones Suntech has been producing so far.

The University of New South Wales had been trying unsuccessfully to commercialize the technology for 20 years, but Shi was determined to find a way. The key was to identify low-cost methods of achieving the same effects with readily available, commercial-­grade silicon. Pointing to its 45 patents and 65 pending patents, Suntech claims it has now succeeded, but it’s secretive about the details. Only three employees have seen the whole process of making its new products. “We know that anyone who has seen the entire line will be targeted very, very enthusiastically by other companies,” says Stuart Wenham, Suntech’s chief technology officer. Wenham, a colleague of Green’s at New South Wales and of Shi’s at Pacific Solar, was brought in to Suntech in 2005 to produce the advanced cells. “Dr. Shi was so determined to keep all of this confidential that he bought his own equipment company to make the equipment for this technology,” he says.

China’s Progress
Source: Photon Consulting
*For the lowest-cost manufacturers in each country

The process involves replacing a key step in making conventional solar cells: screen printing. To extract electrical current from a cell, manufacturers print lines of silver paste on its front surface. The closer together these electron-

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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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