Dreaming of Clear Skies

When the sunshine of his life was born, Huang Ming wanted the best for her. Then, he realized that by the time her daughter grows up, there may not be any clear skies left for her to enjoy. So, he vowed to make his dream of clear skies for her come true.

While still working as a research engineer in the petroleum industry, he secretly built his first solar panel in a small, dimly-lit store room, funded by his salary and surviving on small loans. He even gave away his initial products. In 1995, he was ready to set up Himin Corporation and within ten years, he became the “Solar King” – the Father of Solar Energy in China. With innovative ideas and the adoption of cutting-edge technology, Himin became the one of the world’s largest solar water heater manufacturers.

One only needs to step foot into Solar Valley, in Dezhou, China’s Shandong province, to witness this solar revolution. A complete town in itself, the valley runs fully on solar energy.  It represents the realization of a vision. Sun Moon Mansion, which houses Himin’s headquarters catches one’s eye immediately. The flagship building semi-circle in shape, covered by solar panels, resembles a giant sun-dial. Covering an area of over 333.5 hectares in total, the valley boasts the world’s first low-carbon conference cum exhibition centre, several micro-emission hotels, a theme park, a spa, a university, a vocational institute, solar buildings, a testing center and a solar thermal manufacturing plant.

The plant is the world’s first automated production line for vacuum tubes. Solar architecture is on full display in the Seven Stars villas, a series of clean energy buildings built on the principle of “humanity, ecology, energy saving, beauty and harmony.”

Further on the outskirts, a green housing project, Utopia Gardens, based on the same renewable energy concept, completes the model for the future.

His ultimate dream is to replicate this model all over the world. China’s solar energy industry has certainly come a long way since the 1990’s when it was virtually unknown. Today, many roof tops are dotted with solar panels and Himin sells 300 square metres of solar heaters annually, which is equivalent to the total amount produced by the European Union and twice that of North America. From its initial stages where it was found mainly in residential areas, today’s solar energy usage has expanded to hotels, schools, public buildings and shopping malls. So Huang Ming’s dream may well come true one day.

But it was not always sunny days when Himin started off. They first had to battle ignorance and convince the everyday man of the advantage of solar energy. After business poured in, they were faced with many teething problems. Among which, complaints of dated products made them sit up. Firmly sticking to their belief in product quality, they swiftly discarded many new products in the blueprint and started to build a new generation of products from scratch. It made them realized the importance of research. Himin quickly reorganized itself and invested heavily in R & D. A solar energy technology research institute was established. They have never looked back since. Today, Himin owns more than 300 patents.

A solar testing centre was also set up in October 1997. With 18 laboratories, it ranked as the most advanced and professional centre in the world. Its rigorous testing standards mean that its tests are 24 times above the national test requirements and 7.5 times that of international requirements. All the company’s products including its solar water heaters, Winpin energy-saving glass, solar panels , lamps and many more are tested here to ensure top-quality.

They next focus on branding. Although in the early days, there were not many players in the market, Himin knew it was crucial to build its name.  Despite their limited budget, they took a huge risk and bought costly commercial slots on national TV. They also went on a nation-wide road show campaign to educate the public on solar energy. Product demonstrations on town squares were held, bringing them closer to the masses. Cost is definitely a major factor in any purchasing decision. Himin’s sales staff took pains to explain that the cost of solar heater is merely one-fourth that of a conventional water heater. They would also get their return on investment in two to three years’ time. Their efforts paid off and Himin became the market leader.

Its proven track record enticed Goldman Sachs and CDH Investment to invest US$100Mil in Himin in 2008.

While Huang Ming may seem like a dreamer, he is actually an astute businessman with a practical edge. The model on sustainable renewable energy is based on a viable business model that can be reproduced in other countries worldwide, with some tweaking to suit local conditions. An advocate of the market economy, he urged companies to be self-reliant and not dependent on government subsidies. He believes commercialization is the only sustainable way to go.

In May 2005, Huang Ming was invited as a guest speaker by the 14th UN Conference on Sustainable Development. He shared with the world this model based on the principles of commercialization and the “Butterfly Effect”. This works on the twin engines of the enterprise investing first in the public to build up the market, eventually expanding it and the enterprise beefing up the industry as a whole. This in turn creates employment opportunities generating a positive cycle of renewable energy and in turn reducing the use of conventional energy sources.

In 2010, Himin hosted the Fourth International Solar Cities Congress (ISCC). The low-carbon conference centre in Solar Valley was the natural site for this conference.  As the Vice Chairman of the International Solar Energy Society and Chairman of Himin Solar Energy, Huang Ming shared with over 3,000 government representatives and entrepreneurs from more than 200 cities around the world, his vision of the “Micro-Emission Earth”. He urged every country to cooperate to utilize clean energy technology, such as solar energy, to build a green and sustainable ‘Micro-Emission Earth”. This would lead to a reduction in the emission of waste gas such as carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and other harmful gases, waste water and solid waste.

A crusader for the cause of renewable energy, Huang Ming pushed for having a law on renewable energy in China, when he served on the 10th and 11th People’s Congress (China’s Parliament). He drafted the Law on Renewable Energy and lobbied for its support. The Renewable Energy Law was finally passed in 2005 and took effect in 2006 in China.

Recognizing his efforts in promoting renewable energy, Huang Ming was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 2011. Also known as the ‘alternative’ Nobel Prize, the Swedish-based foundation recognizes work being ignored by the Nobel Foundation.

In June 2012, Himin launched the campaign, “My Climate, My Change – Changing Climate Action” at the Rio +20 conference in Rio de Janeiro.  He set a target to build 50,000 Climate Mart worldwide in five years’ time. These one-stop stores would sell every type of solar energy products from solar water heaters to energy-efficient windows and doors as well as other environmentally friendly products. Climate Mart would be run on a franchise basis. Not unlike electronics and computer stores, Huang Ming feels that this is the most commercially viable and effective way to promote and execute renewable energy.  He appealed to global environmentalists and renewable energy advocates alike to work together to achieve this goal.  

This significant act changes China’s renewable energy initiative from passive to proactive. It also provides a practical solution for the global energy crisis.

After almost a decade of sunny days, Himin has been battling cheaper, substandard products that flood the market in recent years. While Himin used to own the lion’s share of the market, that has been taken over by its rival. With the industry at the price-competitive stage, this seems to be an inevitable development. Himin has been clamouring for mandatory regulation and standard in the industry. With the present recommended standards, many manufacturers cut corners and hurt the industry in the long run. How would Himin rise to this latest challenge? Looks like he needs some help from the Sun Goddess!

This down-to-earth, “mad professor” look alike, who is an inventor, developer, visionary, missionary, manufacturer and entrepreneur, all roll into one; may just be the person to come up with another innovative solution that would take many by surprise!

Whatever turn Himin’s story takes, it shows us that dreams do come true! It is also everyone’s responsibility to do our part to find a solution for the global energy crisis. We should all work to find effective ways to harness the energy of Mother Earth. Who knows, sun-grilled food may well be available at each and every household in future and not just at Solar Valley!

2 Comments

Filed under Serious Stuff

2 responses to “Dreaming of Clear Skies

  1. redbluegreen4066

    thanks for sharing; I would have never found something awesome like this in the nyt.

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