Every day I use solar flood lights to deter wild monkeys from feasting on my ripe rambutans. Hopefully, the flood lights will also deter unwanted strangers from stealing the ripe rambutans. I recharge the solar flood lights using solar panels.
Many are interested to know who invented the solar panels that let us to harvest the sunlight and to be stored in the batteries of the solar flood lights. I purchase the solar flood light from an ecommerce platform at about US$50 a unit.
Solar panels have experienced rapid reduction in prices thanks to a combination of Chinese industrial might backed by American capital, financed by European political supports and made possible largely thanks to the pioneering work of an Australian research team.
The solar power history begins with a succession of US presidents and the quest for energy independence. First was Richard Nixon, who in November r 1973 announced Project Independence to wean the US off Middle Eastern oil. Then came Jimmy Carter, who declared the energy transition the “moral equivalent of war” in April 1977 and pumped billion of US dollars inro renewable energy research, which stopped when Ronald Reagan came to power.
By then, Australia took the interest on solar power.
The father of photovoltaic (PV) solar technology: Professor Green
The solar cell was invented when Russel Shoemaker Ohl, a researcher at Bell Labs in the US, noticed in 1940 that a cracked silicon sample produced a current when exposed to light. However, little improvement had been made until the contribution of Martin Green, a young engineering professor working out of the University of New South Wales, Australia.
Born in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, Green had spent some time in Canada as a researcher before going back to Australia in 1974. A year later he had started a PV solar research group working out of a small laboratory built with unwanted equipment sourced from major American firms.
His first experiments, alongside a single PhD student, involved looking for ways to increase the voltage on early solar cells.
Not long after, Green and his team began to raise their ambitions.. Having boosted the voltage, the next step was building better quality cells. The early efforts broke the world efficiency record in 1983. The team continued to achieve efficiency records in the next 38 years.
In the very early years of the PV industry, the received wisdom had been that a 20 per cent conversion rate marked the hard limit of what was possible from PV solar cells. Green, however, disagreed in a paper published in 1984. A year later, his team built the first cell that pushed past that limit, and in 1989 built the first solar panel capable of running at 20 per cent efficiency.
It was a moment that opened what was possible from the industry, and the new upper limit was set at “25 per cent”—another barrier Green and his team would smash in 2008. In 2015, they built the world’s most efficient solar cell, achieving a 40.6 per cent conversion ion rate using focused light reflected off a mirror.
Enter the sun king
Out of this activity, the Chinse solar industry would be born largely thanks to a ambitious physicist named Zhengrong Shi. Born in 1963, Shi had earned his master’s degree and come to Australu in 1988. He had spotted a flyer advertising a research fellowship and talked to Green into bringing him as a PhD student in 1989. Shi would finish his PhD in just two and half years. He stayed on a as a researcher.
With time, the university was increasingly looking to commercialize its world leading solar cell technology and reached a partnership agreement with t Pacific Power, an Australian power generator in 1995. The Pacific Power invested US$47 million into a new company called Pacific Solar. A factory was set up in the Sydney suburb of Botany and Shi was made the deputy director of research and development.
Shi worked in the company for a few years. In November 2000, he was made an offer. At a dinner held at his home , four officials from the Chinese province of Jiangsu suggested the 37-yaer-ol researcher and Australian citizen return to China and build his own factory there. After some consideration, Shi agreed and ended settling in the small city of Wuxi where he founded SunTech with US46 million in start-up funding from the municipal government.
Shi’s arrival caused a stir in China. The ability to cheaply build conventional solar panels with 17 percent efficiency was far beyond what his competitors were capable off. Shi was quoted; “The first reaction was: that’s the future. Everybody said that’s the future. But they also said it was one step too early. What they meant was that there was no market for it yet. In China, at that time, if you mentioned solar, people thought of solar hot water”.
All that change when Germany passed new laws encouraging the uptake of solar power. Quickly it became clear there was a massive global demand and the world’s manufacturers were struggling to keep up with supply.
Spying an opportunity for investment, a consortium that included Actis Capital and Goldman Sachs came knocking to pitch Shi on taking the company public. When the company listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2005, it raised US$420 million and made Shi an instant billionaire. A year later he would be worth an estimated US$3 billion and crowned the richest man in China, earning him the moniker “the Sun King”.
As Shi had shown the way, the Chinese PV solar industry began a massive expansion. SunTech alone boosted its production capacity from 60 megawatts (MW) to 500MV, and then 1 gigawatt in 2009. The company grew so fast, its supplies of glass, polysilicon and electronic systems needed to build its panels came under strain, forcing it to invest heavily in local supply chains.
Around 2012 the world market was flooded with solar panels, sending the price plummeting through the floor, leaving SunTech vulnerable. Already under intense financial pressure, disaster struck when an internal investigation found a takeover bid it had launched had been guaranteed by Euro560 million in fake German government bonds. Upon discovering the bonds didn’t exist, Shi was removed as CEO of his company and a year later SunTech would file for bankruptcy protection when it couldn’t repay US$541 million loan that fell due in March 2013.
Chinese manufacturers dominate the PV solar industry
Between 2008 and 2013, China’s fledgling solar panel industry dropped the world’s prices by 80 per cent, a stunning achievement in a fiercely competitive high technology market. Today, the PV solar industry is worth US$100 billion a year.
As a result, China has eclipsed the leadership of the US solar industry, which invented the technology, still holds many of the worlds’ patents and led that industry for more than three decades. Now China dominates nearly all aspects of solar use and manufacturing.
I can now buy Chinese solar flood lights at cheap prices to light my garden at night. Thank you Professor Green and Dr Shi for your pioneering works on the PV solar technology.
Royce Kurmelovs. Insanely cheap energy: how solr power continues to shock the world. The Guardian, April 24th, 2021.
John Fialka. Why China is dominating the solar industry. Scientific American, December 19th, 2016.