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Can solar cars recharge Hanergy?

Hanergy Car

Return of the Sun King

He famously took on the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) when it tried to block his purchase of a hydropower station and won. Last May, Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) took him on over allegations of share price manipulation at his listed company Hanergy Thin Film Power Group. (The investigation is ongoing and the shares suspended.)

But China’s “Sun King”, Li Hejun, is not a man who gives in easily. As we wrote in WiC303, the solar power entrepreneur shares some traits with France’s more famous Sun King Louis XIV, not least a belief that he acts with “God” on his side.

Earlier this month Li unveiled a new venture, demonstrating that he is still “advancing with his dreams”, as he puts it. Critics have long queried how his main company, unlisted Hanergy Holdings, will exploit the solar power technology it has been developing since its acquisition of Alta Devices in 2013.

The answer, according to Li, is solar-powered cars. At a briefing in Beijing, Li last week unveiled four models he branded O, L, A and R.

Never one to underplay his company’s potential, Li says the cars’ gallium arsenide (GaAs) powered solar cells are the most advanced on the market. He cited a US Energy and National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) report, which certifies the cells’ record-breaking energy conversion rates: they are able to convert 31.6% of solar rays they capture into electricity.

Between 3.5 to 7.5 square metres of thin-film solar panels cover the various car models, and Hanergy says they can convert five to six hours of sunlight into about eight to 10 kilowatt hours of power per day. That gives the cars a range of 80 kilometres, says Li. Add these panels to an electric vehicle with a fully charged lithium battery and Hanergy says it could potentially travel over 350 kilometres before it needs to find a charging post.

Caixin Weekly is somewhat sceptical of this, suggesting the new models have not been tested under real driving conditions and that Hanergy’s claims are overstated. “Unless you’re planning to drive in Lhasa [the Tibetans call it the “sunlit city”], then it’s probably best not to rely on a solar power vehicle without a charging point any time soon,” it concludes.

However, Hanergy says the new cars incorporate a special app, which helps drivers monitor weather conditions and adjust their expectations according to how much sunshine there is. The cars also employ an ultrasonic cleaning to keep the panels free of dust.

Caixin says Hanergy’s GaAs solar panel technology costs between 10 and 100 times more than traditional photovoltaic technology. Hanergy says this will be mitigated by the increasing efficiency of the GaAs-powered solar cells, which should be able to achieve a conversion ratio of 42% by 2025. Hanergy also hopes to use the same technology for electric buses and has signed a framework agreement with Foton Motors, which makes buses in Beijing. Hanergy’s new auto division CEO, Gao Weimin, formerly worked for Foton’s parent BAIC.

The tie-up is a rare piece of good news for the company. Some equity analysts doubt whether Hanergy Thin Film shares will ever resume trading (the Hong Kong-listed stock has been suspended since July last year) even though Li and two other directors stood down from the group in May on governance grounds.

The company reported a HK$12.2 billion ($1.57 billion) loss in 2015 after its ties were cut with the parent (more than 90% of its revenues came from equipment sales to Hanergy Holdings, which manufactures and sells solar panels). A planned strategic share sale to Microlink, announced in February 2015, was formally abandoned in May.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post recently reported that Hanergy Holdings is being propped up by loans secured against its hydropower business, while an investment bank is seeking a new strategic buyer to replace Microlink.

Meanwhile Hanergy has claimed its new cars will be available for sale within three years but China Daily says the boss of Shanghai-based consultancy Automotive Foresight is doubtful about this timetable, adding Li’s strategy “leaves a great deal to the imagination”.

Li continues to talk big. “I am not as famous as Elon Musk but our company is more innovative than Tesla,” he told China Daily.

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