Back in the solar race: Suntech has been rescued by a secretive billionaire

Back in the solar race: Suntech has been rescued by a secretive billionaire

The Sun King is dead. Long live the Sun King.

Australian-trained Shi Zhengrong rode to fleeting financial glory when his solar photovoltaic (PV) firm Suntech Power soared after listing on the New York Stock Exchange, valuing his stake at more than $3 billion in late 2007.

The Chinese company’s excessive expansion and poor investments, though, triggered a default on $US541 million ($576 million) in US debt in February 2013, a move that all but wiped out Suntech and Dr Shi’s holdings.

Shi Zhengrong in happier times.

Shi Zhengrong in happier times.

Despite the financial turmoil at home, Suntech maintained a research and development unit in Australia that is now working with the world-leading solar unit of the University of New South Wales on a range of ventures.

Commercially, the firm - now rebadged as Wuxi Suntech Power - is also rising from the ashes.

Behind the revivial is secretive Hong Kong-based billionaire, Cheng Kin Ming, also known in Mandarin as Zheng Jianming, with his Shunfeng group that has specialised in snapping up struggling solar firms such as bankrupt LDK.

Zheng Jianming.

Zheng Jianming.

“Last year we got into some trouble,” Wu Hui, director of global marketing for Wuxi Suntech, said. “The biggest problems were financial, and we expanded into the wrong projects.”

After being overtaken as the world’s largest PV firm, Wuxi Suntech has set itself an ambitious goal of tripling last year’s output of 800 megawatts to as much as 2.4 gigawatts to regain its place among the biggest producers. By comparison, Australia’s entire installed PV capacity ticked past 3 gigawatts late last year.

Mr Wu said Suntech’s quality and customer satisfaction had held up despite last year’s turmoil. This time around, the company has “someone behind us” with financial acumen, referring to Mr Cheng.

The hunt is also on for more acquisitions including battery technologies. "The cost of solar is at the edge of being very competitive with conventional utility costs,” Mr Wu said. “The trend of solar is irresistible - you just can’t stop it.”

Wuxi Suntech will be represented at Australia’s annual Clean Energy Week, held this year in Sydney from Tuesday, as part of its efforts to reinvigorate its local business.

This year’s theme, Energy at the Crossroads, comes as the rollback of state-based support for PV has triggered a drop of more than 20 per cent in installations in the June quarter – at 45,369 compared with 58,221 a year earlier, according to the Australian Solar Council.

Large-scale renewable energy has also stalled, with just $40 million invested in the first half of 2014, compared with almost $2.7 billion for all of 2013, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

By contrast, renewable energy investments in China soared to a record $US19.3 billion in the second-quarter alone.

China accounts for about half of Wuxi Suntech’s revenue although profit margins are higher for overseas sales, Mr Wu said.

Meanwhile Dr Shi, an Australian citizen who gained his PhD and conducted research at the UNSW, is no longer active at Suntech.

“He may serve as a consultant from time to time but he is not officially with us,” Mr Wu said.