by Aaron Back
Wall Street Journal
China-based Suntech, the world’s largest producer of solar panels, hasn’t been immune to turmoil in the industry world-wide, but the company’s founder and chief executive, Shi Zhengrong, believes increasing consolidation in the sector will buoy large players.
Dr. Shi is a foreign-educated solar scientist. He earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of New South Wales in Australia in 1992, and gained Australian citizenship. From 1995 to 2001 he was research director and executive director of Pacific Solar Pty. Ltd., an Australia-based maker of solar components.
The solar industry globally has fallen on hard times, beset by falling subsidies in Europe, a key market, and global overcapacity for solar panels and their components. In a recent high-profile case, the German government has been in talks with the solar industry to begin monthly reductions in feed-in tariffs, the fixed price at which solar energy is purchased. U.S. trade authorities are also investigating complaints of alleged dumping of solar panels on the U.S. market by Chinese producers, including Suntech.
Dr. Shi has said he sees consolidation of the sector ahead, which could benefit large players like Suntech. Still, the company has been vulnerable to forces buffeting the industry. Suntech posted a $116 million loss in the third quarter, compared with a year-earlier profit of $33.3 million, hurt by a foreign-exchange loss due to volatility in the euro and dollar exchange rates. The company said it expects to post revenue of between $3 billion and $3.1 billion for 2011, up from $2.9 billion in 2010.
Dr. Shi talked with Aaron Back in Davos, Switzerland. The following interview has been edited.
WSJ: You earned a Ph.D. in Australia and took an Australian citizenship. How did this experience shape your management philosophy?
Mr. Shi: I spent 14 years living in Sydney, Australia. When I first went to Australia I was 23 years old. I was a young man. I did my Ph.D. with professor Martin Green, and to be honest, before that I never thought I could be a good scientist.
After [finishing my Ph.D. in] 2.5 years, record time at the University of New South Wales, and afterwards working in the laboratory for about 2-3 years, based on my patents together with the professor, we were able to raise about $50 million to start a spinoff company called Pacific Solar, and I was appointed as deputy research director. So that was actually very important for my career in a way. Before, my background and research specialty was on laser physics, and that really changed my specialty to solar.
WSJ: So was it something of a coincidence that you became involved with solar technology?
Dr. Shi: It was a coincidence for me to come to know professor Martin Green. I knocked on his door at 5 p.m. to ask him for a job. So then I said “I don’t want a full-time job, I just want something like part-time research assistance or something.” So then he said, “OK, come in.” So we started chatting, and he knew my background, he knew I had masters degree, I think based on the credentials of other Chinese students he guessed I was at least above average. That’s how I got into solar.
WSJ: Has your dual role as a Chinese entrepreneur and an Australian citizen been key to your success?
Dr. Shi: I think it’s extremely important for Suntech. If you look at our culture and DNA, a lot of things have to do with my experience in Australia. I got to know Western culture a lot, their way of thinking, their way of doing things. Of course I also kept the essence of Chinese culture, if you look at the style of management in the company, we’re really multinational with a global management team. For our regional sales and operations, we really depend on local culture, local faces and local language to really represent Suntech. And also, because as we know, Australia has leading technology in crystalline silicon solar cell technology, so that also gives us a leading position in research and development and innovation.
WSJ: You’ve said recently that the solar sector will face consolidation. How do you see this playing out?
Dr. Shi: If you look at China there are probably more than 1,000 companies in this sector, but at this moment, 50% at least have either shut down production or partially ended production. Whether they are going to shut down permanently or whether there will be some M&A I think all depends. You know, Chinese companies have very strong survivability. So it all depends on how long this situation will last. But the market consolidation is already happening. If you look at 2011 Q2 and Q3 figures, the top six manufacturers (globally) had 55% to 60% of market share. But in 2010, it was only about 25%. So it’s already happening because customers care more about brand, R&D, sustainability, service and so on.
WSJ: But are you yourself going to go out and buying any struggling rivals? Is that something you would consider?
Dr. Shi: Not really, but we are open-minded to seize any opportunity that fits with our strategy…Anything is possible.
WSJ: Germany has recently cut its solar feed-in tariffs, and it seems around the world in this era there is less money for solar subsidies. So what does that mean for you?
Dr. Shi: Well, I think its natural and it’s the way it should be. If you look at the [German Renewable Energy Act] initiated by the German government in 2004, that was just trying to help the industry to create a market. So once you have a market, industry will innovate and try to reduce costs. So in the last few years, costs have come down so dramatically…The law was designed to reduce feed-in tariffs annually, say once a year maybe around 10%, but in the last two years, apart from this annual reduction, there were additional 15% feed-in tariff cuts. So that gives you an idea—there’s an accelerated reduction of feed-in tariffs, due to accelerated reduction of solar panel costs.
WSJ: Late last year, some U.S. solar-panel manufacturers asked for anti-dumping investigations against Chinese rivals, including Suntech. Where do you think this is headed?
Dr. Shi: Unfortunately it’s a lose-lose situation. Nobody wins: The U.S. government, U.S. consumers, and the solar industry are all losers in this game. We believe the accusation is not true.
If there’s a tariff or trade war, it would really be a big setback for the industry…Because of [a possible tariff] many projects that were realistic due to reduced prices become impractical because the economics doesn’t work anymore. What does that mean? It means, you will lose jobs. I think in the U.S. currently there are about 150,000 people employed in the solar industry. Globally around 800,000, with 300,000 in Europe. For every 10 jobs we create in factories, there will be 15 jobs created downstream, in installation, financing, project development, distribution.
Write to Aaron Back at email@example.com
Education: Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of New South Wales (1992)
Career: Pacific Solar Pty. Ltd. research director and executive director (1995-2001)
On antidumping investigations: “If there’s a tariff or trade war, it would really be a big setback for the industry…Because of [a possible tariff] many projects that were realistic due to reduced prices become impractical because the economics doesn’t work anymore.”