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Reports that China will soon overtake the U.S. as the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases have attracted a lot of concern. But there's another side of the story. China is investing as much money in alternative energy sources as wealthier nations.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn introduces us to a leading entrepreneur in the renewable energy field there - the man who has been dubbed China's Sun King.
ANTHONY KUHN: The factory floor of the Suntech company, here in east China's Wuxi City, buzzes with a kind of clean efficiency. It's clean because high-tech manufacturing requires a spotless environment.
The efficiency comes from the young workers here, 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 number one.
Nobody's more surprised at Suntech's success than its founder, 44-year-old Shi Zhengrong.
Mr. SHI ZHENGRONG (Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Suntech Power): (Through translator) I got into this field as a scholar. I never thought solar energy could be made into a commercial product that could benefit mankind. I just thought it was something which I could research and write papers about.
KUHN: Shi got his Ph.D. in engineering in Australia in 1996. He founded Suntech in 2000, and listed it on the Nasdaq in 2005. Suntech's market capitalization is now more than $6 billion, and Shi himself 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 currently exports 90 percent of its products to countries which do subsidize like Germany and Japan. Shi says he's lobbying Chinese officials as hard as he can.
Dr. ZHENGRONG: (Through translator) I ask them: You think solar energy is expensive, but do you have any choice? What are you going to do when you've burned up all the coal? We must educate policymakers and give them a sense of urgency.
KUHN: Critics point out that the real cost of coal is much higher. It's just that the bill for cleaning up the environmental and health damage it causes is being left for future generations to pay.
In Beijing, Chinese Academy of Sciences solar energy expert Wang Wenjing says he thinks that solar subsidies are only a year or two away.
Mr. WANG WENJING (Solar Energy Expert, Chinese Academy of Sciences): (Through translator) The lack of government policy is constraining the use of solar energy. 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.
KUHN: There is one area in which China already leads in the use of solar energy without any subsidies.
Just walking around Beijing's lanes and alleyways, you often look up on a roof and see an array of solar panels, and they're usually connected to a drum of water, which tells you they're probably used for heating people's hot water.
I'm often been curious about this, so I thought I just duck in to one of these little courtyards here and see how people use these things.
(Soundbite of knocking)
KUHN: (Chinese Spoken)
Fifty-six-year-old engineer Wang Jiahong 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 for her, but it's paid off since.
Ms. WANG JIAHONG (Engineer): (Through translator) Even when it's well below freezing in winter, as long as there is a sun, the water can be heated to as high as 120 degrees. If you get a week of cloudy days, it uses electric wires to heat the water.
(Soundbite of flowing water)
KUHN: 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. As for Suntech Shi Zhengrong, he's convinced that time and economics are on his side.
Dr. ZHENGRONG: (Through translator) 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?
KUHN: Skeptics think it would be many years before the cost of solar energy pulls even with that of fossil fuels. But Shi Zhengrong is undaunted. He predicts that in a few years, investment in silicon will lower its price and the cost of making his products. He is positioning his company so that when solar energy does become competitive, Suntech will shine.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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