Chinese Billionaire Li Hejun Has Swooped On Cheap Western Solar Technology. What’s Next? When the world’s eyes were fixed on the Beijing Olympics five years ago, China cleaned up the capital’s famously polluted air. Since then, things have gone from the previously bad to the progressively worse. Pollution is sometimes so thick that the American embassy advises staying indoors. This year a study backed by prestigious Tsinghua University found that Chinese living north of the Huai River–an area that includes Beijing–on average die 5.5 years earlier. The nation’s current energy and resource mix is toxic.
At his headquarters in the China Olympics Forest Park, trying to do something about it, is Li Hejun, chairman of China’s largest clean energy business, Hanergy Holding. Li arrived in the city as a college student in the 1980s from Guangdong Province. Later he found his way into hydropower, acquiring and building small dams back home until he put together what would make his career: western China’s Jin’anqiao Hydroelectric Project, the world’s largest privately owned hydropower station. The total power business generates $500 million a year of free cash flow for a Hanergy arm, according to Li and a report by Macquarie Securities. “I could stop working ,” Li smiles in an interview. “I like golf.”
But Li, at 46, is a man with a larger mission. He wants to expand his renewable-resource business, in particular solar. More than half of the world’s energy will come from renewables in 2035, he predicts. The sun is “everywhere”–even behind that Beijing muck.
For a China dependent on imported oil and battling horrific coal smoke, it’s a wonderful big dream, the stuff of new President Xi Jinping’s rhetoric. Rather than the silicon-based technology that fostered the rise and fall of many solar companies, including Chinese, Li is focused on what is known as thin-film. It’s lightweight but can be combined with other materials to power buildings.
A crash in the price of thin-film technology in the U.S. and elsewhere in recent years has beset still other firms and paved the way for Li to swoop in at vulture prices. Reportedly, a thin-film company that Li bought last year for $30 million, MiaSole, received $500 million of venture funding from, among others, Silicon Valley heavyweight Kleiner Perkins (which didn’t respond to a request for a comment). Li in the past year also bought Solibro from German solar equipment maker Q-Cells and Global Solar Energy of Arizona.
“It’s very smart,” says Gary Rieschel, a managing partner at Qiming Venture Partners in Shanghai, which includes green-tech firms among its $1 billion of investments “You have to take him seriously.” Li says he’s still looking to buy more businesses.
This story appears in the October 28, 2013 issue of Forbes Asia.