To see the future of solar power, take an hour-long train ride inland from Shanghai and then a horn-blaring cab trek through the smog of Wuxi, a fast-growing Chinese city of five million. After winding through an industrial park, you will arrive at the front door of Suntech Power, a company that in the few years since its founding has become the world's largest maker of crystalline-silicon solar panels.
Solar panels cover the entire front face of the sprawling eight-story headquarters. Nearly 2,600 two-meter-long panels form the largest grid-connected solar façade in the world. Together with an array of 1,800 smaller panels on the roof, it can generate a megawatt of power on a sunny day. It's expected to produce over a million kilowatt-hours of electricity in a year--enough for more than 300 people in China.
In 2001, when Suntech was founded, all the solar-panel factories in China operating at full capacity would have taken six months to build enough panels for such a massive array. Suntech's first factory, which opened in 2002, cut that time to a little more than a month. Today, the company can make that many panels in less than one 12-hour shift. By the end of this year, the workers could be done by lunchtime. Suntech's production capacity has increased from 10 megawatts a year in 2002 to well over 1,000 megawatts today. Chinese solar manufacturing as a whole has increased its capacity from two megawatts in 2001 to over 4,000 megawatts.
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Author: Kevin Bullis