Once a physicist: Zhengrong Shi

Zhengrong Shi is the founder and chief executive of Suntech Power, the world’s largest manufacturer of solar modules.

Zhengrong Shi

Why did you choose to study physics?
I was born on an island called Yangzhong on the Yangtze River in Jiangsu province, China. Though mainly agricultural, Yangzhong was blessed with a good school system and I dedicated myself to my studies. I followed my instincts and interests in science and built a strong foundation in physics. My family always encouraged me to pursue my studies, so I went on to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in optical science from Chang Chun University of Science and Technology in 1983 and a Master’s degree in laser physics from the Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics in 1986.

What did you do next?
I had been doing laser physics for more than five years when I decided to go to the University of New South Wales in Australia to further my studies. Aside from the initial culture shock, this was a fantastic opportunity to work with like-minded students and accomplished professors.

How did you become interested in solar power?
If I had not left China, I would undoubtedly still be working in laser physics. In the 1980s, this was a very new research area in China, and the Chinese government devoted many human and financial resources to this subject — I was honoured to be involved. But one of my colleagues in Australia suggested I speak to Martin Green, a prize-winning solar specialist, and so it was really by chance that I came to work in the field. Under Green’s tutelage I undertook a PhD in thin-film solar cells. When a breakthrough came, I was ecstatic, and that experience became the basis for a career in solar power.

Why did you decide to shift into industry?
I accumulated a lot of experience developing solar technologies both from my time at university and working in a solar start-up firm, so I knew the challenges involved. Then in 2000 I heard about the massive economic growth in China and the support provided to Chinese citizens based overseas willing to set up new enterprises back in China. I was also acutely aware of the growing need for renewable energy and so I decided to launch a company that helped provide a solution. I have always enjoyed challenges, and the opportunity to create an independent solar company was one that I could not forgo.

How has your physics training affected your approach to your business?
My scientific background was fundamental in the development and growth of Suntech. When I started the company back in 2002, we had very limited resources, and I had to design and build a production line using a mixture of second-hand and new equipment. At that point, I personally managed all aspects of the business, including production, sourcing, R&D and general operations. It was a real challenge, but my training allowed me to wear a number of hats and use our resources sparingly.

Do you still keep up to date with any physics?
The business and the industry are incredibly dynamic, and I do my best to keep track of the latest technical developments. It takes a huge commitment from me to guide the strategic developments of the company to maintain its growth and at the same time ensure that our costs do not get out of hand. In addition, I spend up to 20% of my time educating others about the importance of solar power and the necessity for us to act quickly to avoid the consequences of climate change. I also try to spend as much time as possible with the R&D group and discuss with our scientists the latest improvements in solar technology.

What is the biggest challenge for the future of solar power?
The goal of the solar industry is to reduce the cost and price of solar products to the point where the electricity generated is at or below the cost of energy coming from the grid. Once we reach grid parity, mass adoption of solar technologies will occur without government subsidies, and increased use of solar power will help us tackle issues like global warming, environmental pollution and energy security. To meet this goal we have a number of cost-reduction initiatives under way, including reducing the cost of silicon by improving how we source it; increasing the conversion efficiency of our solar products (which simultaneously increases power output per unit area and reduces production costs); and improving production efficiency through greater automation and lean supply-chain management.

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Physics World

last edited: January 05, 2015

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