Chinese entrepreneur accepts White House solar panel with humility, vision

By Ethan Andrews | Aug 09, 2010
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Huang Ming, chairman of Himin Solar Energy Group, a major solar panel manufacturer based in China, addresses a group in Unity, August 5. Unity College gave Huang a solar panel that was installed on the White House during the Carter administration, to be displayed at the Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, China. Pictured on the screen beside Huang is Himin's headquarters, Sun Moon Mansion.

Unity — Huang Ming, the soft-spoken 49-year-old chairman of Himin Solar Energy Group, the world's largest manufacturer of solar hot water heaters, wore a T-shirt when he appeared at a formal presentation at the Unity Centre for the Performing Arts, Aug. 5. He was, he said, "against the bad habit of overheating and overcooling."

Huang was there to receive a symbolic gift to the people of China from Unity College: a solar panel once installed on the roof of the White House.

The panel is to be displayed at the newly constructed Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, Shandong Province.

Speaking to the 50 assembled guests, Huang expressed deep admiration for the work done in the United States during the early years of solar energy research, several times equating his vision of his company to a continuation of the "American spirit."

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter had 32 solar panels installed on the West Wing of the White House as a symbolic introduction of the administration's goal of getting 20 percent of the nation's energy from renewable sources by the year 2000.

Oil consumption dropped sharply in the early 1980s, but the White House panels were removed in 1986, and over the next 20 years, per capita American oil consumption has increased steadily. Unity College acquired the panels in 1991.

"You were really ahead in the last century," Huang said, "but in the future, two nations must cooperate with each other to face the challenge of the energy crisis and climate change."

China has famously polluted many of its natural resources, but the country has recently emerged as a major player, maybe even a leader, in renewable technologies. Huang gave ample evidence of this in an hour-long presentation in which he showed photos and artist's renderings of a staggering number of ambitious, futuristic-looking Chinese buildings — most of which, he noted, have already been constructed.

The standard Himin solar thermal hot water heater looks something like a building radiator, but functions in the inverse way, with the water receiving warmth from the sun's rays as it moves through rows of heat absorbing black pipes.

All of the buildings in Huang's presentation incorporated large numbers of solar thermal, and to a lesser extent, photovoltaic panels in their design, sometimes affixed to the roof and walls of the building, other times in free standing arrays incorporated as design elements. In one particularly dramatic example, a sweeping wave of solar panels spanned a pair of high-rise apartment buildings.

Many of the examples came from China's Solar Valley, an 800-acre solar energy complex that includes Himin Energy Group's headquarters (dubbed "Sun Moon Mansion" and featuring a massive double rainbow of solar panels that appears to lean against the 12-story building), a luxury hotel, an opera house, manufacturing facilities, a number of demonstration buildings, and the Solar Science and Technology Museum where the White House panel will be displayed.

Other buildings in Huang's presentation featured both solar panels and wind turbines, or in the case of the "Sky Screen" at Solar Valley, a series of wind turbines with solar arrays on their towers.

There were solar sculptures, streetlights and "trees," all with a playfully futuristic appearance suggestive of Japanese product design.

"We [Himin Solar Energy Group] have done so much more than so many countries," Huang said, sounding more surprised than boastful. "The difference is only the dedication, the willingness."

"So simple," he said. Then a moment later he added, "Maybe so hard."

At one point, Huang flipped through a series of slides showing conceptual drawings, each followed by a photo of the completed building or sculpture.

As he passed from one to the next, his explanations became shorter and shorter until the projection lingered on each slide for less than a second, Huang's narration distilled to a couplet: "Dream. Real. Dream. Real. Dream. Real ... " repeated casually, as though the examples were infinite.

Huang started his career, with some regrets, as an engineer in the petroleum industry. In college he had studied and been inspired by solar energy, but there was no solar energy industry in China at the time, so he took what he described as a high-paying oil company job.

A decade later, seeing that his one-year-old daughter would inherit the energy shortages and environmental degradation caused by the oil industry, he dropped out and started his own company manufacturing solar hot water heaters.

Huang said he had encountered designs similar to the White House panel in the 1980s while teaching himself about solar energy from schematics in a book. Seeing the panel in Unity reminded him, he said, "of happiness, hard work and good times."

In the early 1990s, Huang founded Himin Solar Energy Group, later gambling on making high quality, expensive solar thermal heaters rather than aiming at the low-end market.

The decision was apparently a good one. In China, Huang said, Himin solar thermal units are used by roughly the population of the United States. The statement drew awed murmurs from the crowd in Unity.

"I always say, if everybody in the USA used solar heaters, your President Obama would win another Nobel Peace Prize," he said.

Though the Chinese government recently committed to having 20-percent of the country's electric consumption come from renewable resources by 2020 — a pledge very similar to the one made by Jimmy Carter in 1979 — Huang said the success of Himin and associated solar industries in China has come from the marketplace.

The unassuming chairman credited China's Open Door policy, which has encouraged foreign trade by Chinese companies, but said otherwise government support has been more philosophical than material.

"Everybody in the Western world believes change must rely on government," he said. "But pure business can contribute more."

"Commercialization is the only way out for climate change and the energy crisis. Just like the automobile, mobile phones and computers," important innovations that Huang said came about through the market system rather than government programs.

Because of China's massive population and the relative scarcity of resources, Huang said, the country has been forced to confront its own energy and pollution problems now. By contrast, the United States in the 1980s backed away from energy reforms as soon as the immediate crisis was over, he said.

"This story tells us that we can't just do something when the crisis comes. Long before that we must do something," he said.

After the presentation, Unity College President Mitchell Thomashow said he was impressed with the "integration of art and cosmology in [Huang's] vision," something Thomashow said convinced him that Huang understood the symbolic value of the Carter solar panel.

Mick Womersley, a Unity College professor who has worked with the White House solar panels, said Huang's presentation gave him glimpses of things he wanted to know more about. "Especially the technology," he said, like the use of a solar thermal power station on the roof of a building, where typically a roof installation is either solar thermal or a power station, but not both.

Also in attendance for the presentation were C. Julian Chen, a professor at Columbia University who initiated the contact between Huang and Unity College, and Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. State Rep. Jayne Crosby Giles was present. Gov. John E. Baldacci, Senators Collins and Snowe and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree sent diplomatic letters.

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