China's shining light in the energy challenge

08:49, February 22, 2010      

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Peng Xiaofeng (left) inspects the production line at the LDK silicon factory located in Xinyu city, Jiangxi province.( File photo)

Entrepreneur believes 60 percent of the world's power will come from the sun 100 years from now

XINYU, Jiangxi province: Peng Xiaofeng is not one to be deterred from his personal mission by the heavy rain pouring down outside his office.

It might be a dreary day in Xinyu but the 34-year-old insists solar energy will provide 60 per cent of the world's energy supply in 100 years.

The modest and quietly spoken chairman and chief executive officer of LDK Solar, one of China's leading solar energy companies, insists sun power will eclipse coal, gas and oil in the 22nd century.

One of China's leading young entrepreneurs and listed by Forbes magazine as one of the 500 richest men in the world, he believes people consistently underrate this natural form of new energy.

China's solar power usage currently barely registers above zero as a percentage of total energy sources.

"In 100 years, my view is that 60 percent of the world's energy will come from solar power," he said.

"This is not an optimistic prediction. The European PhotoVoltaic Industry Association (one of the solar energy industry's main trade bodies) puts the figure at 80 per cent."

Because of their current marginal status, it is all too easy to dismiss new energy sources as something of a sideshow to ease climate change fears.

Renewable energy target

The Chinese government, however, wants 20 percent of the country's power to be from renewable energy (of which hydro will be a major part) by 2020.

Peng insists people fail to realize existing energy sources, oil in particular, are going to run out.

"Oil, maybe, has 50 years, I don't know. That is because it is not very renewable. It is also going to get more expensive. Even with the background of a financial crisis like now, its price has gone back up to $81 a barrel," he said.

LDK has had something of a torrid time itself recently. Its shares on the New York Stock Exchange initially soared to nearly $70 from their initial flotation price of $27 in 2007 but have since slumped to just a tenth of their peak value at around $7.

With Peng owning around 70 per cent of the equity of the company, this has put a considerable dent in his personal fortune, although he still retains major private interests.

In December, the company went back to the NYSE and has raised a further $122 million, using around $90 million of the proceeds to pay back short-term debt as well as develop other aspects of the business.

"The economic crisis has affected everybody and, in particular, solar energy. Many projects have been delayed, mainly because of the problems in getting bank finance," he said.

"The main reason we were impacted was that the decreased price of raw materials brought down the price of silicon products. So, although our sales volume was still increasing, revenues were lower because of the lower unit price."

He points out, however, despite stock market nerves the company is still the world's largest maker of solar wafers and has increased its global market share from 11 percent in 2008 to 18 percent now.

"The company's market share is increasing, our cost leadership is getting stronger and we are placing a great deal of emphasis on technological innovation this year," he said.

You have only got to drive around Xinyu to see how much depends on Peng's efforts.

The city in Jiangxi province is now known as 'Solar Power City'.

Around 80 percent of LDK's 14,000 employees are from the city itself. The presence of LDK has also generated a cluster of other companies from processing raw materials to all other aspects of solar power engineering.

LDK has also established schools to train people to work in the solar power industry and it has also contributed towards the city's infrastructure, including helping fund the main Saiwei Road.

Peng is aware of the important role LDK plays in both local society and the economy. Like many of China's entrepreneurs he sees himself as part philanthropist.

"This is a very small city and we bring a lot of jobs to it. It is my home province and the local government is also very supportive of the solar energy industry, " he said.

Peng, who likes to be referred to by his nickname "Light", comes from a rural area of Jiangxi province and is the son of a local doctor.

At school he was interested in science, particularly physics, prescient for his future involvement in new energy.

"When I was at school I was always reading books about light, which is where I got the nickname from," he said.

"My dream was to study physics in the United States. At the time the role model for a lot of young people in China was (Thomas) Edison (the American inventor of the light bulb)."

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