China gets a lot of attention these days for its air pollution. It’s a big challenge for a country that is developing fast. One of the top sources of pollution, as in almost every country, is the automobile. Mostly powered by gasoline or diesel, automobiles burn ancient fossil remains and the resulting smoke makes its way into our bodies, doing lasting harm that can even lead to premature death.
Wang Chuan Fu, a self-made Chinese billionaire, may be the leading person to move China away from such pollution. Chuan Fu was born in a family of poor farmers but became the richest man in China in 2009. After studying chemistry and working as a government researcher, Chuan Fu and his cousin started a company in 1995 called Build Your Dreams (BYD) that used Chuan Fu’s chemistry expertise to create batteries used in mobile phones. It became the largest producer of such batteries in the world.
Chuan Fu was keen to see the cell phone market (and, thus, cell phone battery market) opening up, and he was also keen to enable it through good battery technology. He also made a risky but successful leap in acquiring an auto company as the Chinese auto industry was beginning to boom. He seems to have retained that knack for foresight and is now leading the way into the electric vehicle future. With the existing benefit of being a leading battery producer and auto producer, BYD now produces a few electric vehicles and is looking to fully shift to electric vehicles over time.
At the moment, BYD produces the BYD e6, the BYD Qin plug-in hybrid, and an electric bus. Its eBus has been a leader in electric bus pilot programs and has shown that electric buses can now compete with conventional buses. In many places, it is now competitive (on a lifetime basis) with buses powered by fossil fuels, but it doesn’t create the pollution and health costs that those buses create. I expect the BYD eBus will make it into thousands or even tens of thousands of transit agencies in the coming years.
BYD has also branched out into other cleantech realms. It offers solar PV modules, cells, wafers, and tracking systems. It also offers energy storage systems, solar-powered street lamps, and various LED products. Clearly, Chuan Fu has a passion for helping the world to address global warming and pollution problems while also profiting from leadership in emerging sectors. In a 2011 interview with Caixin, Chuan Fu is paraphrased as saying:
"One aspect of doing business is meeting the interests of shareholders. Another is using technology to provide better things for society, the world and the future, while encouraging society to change in a good way; this is BYD's original dream.
"What will the future bring to the company and society? I think we should embrace new energy. In fact, the government has given new energy a high strategic position. This is a good opportunity. We have a dream, and the state has given a high degree of support.
"From batteries, we moved into electric vehicles, energy-storing power plants and solar energy: These three industries can be connected just right, and the key is battery technology. (Energy-storing power stations and electric cars) involves the technology linking two ends.
"Among these three industries, the electric car will slowly grow over the next three years. I think the solar energy industry will explode in 2016. We just began working on energy-storing power stations this year, and the industry will grow slowly over the next decade.
"New energy's capital demands are too great. Thus, we need to increase the profitability of our IT components and traditional automobiles. But if we wait for the solar industry explosion and then prepare, we'll be too late."
Chuan Fu also has a tendency to do or say somewhat shocking things that get the attention of the press and the public, including many people who had never heard of BYD before. In 2008, he reportedly drank BYD battery fluid. He was discussing BYD’s goal of having 100% recyclable batteries and the importance of environmentally friendly technological solutions. "His focus there was that if we're going to help solve environmental problems, we can't create new environmental problems with our technology," David Sokol, who was receiving a tour of BYD’s facilities, stated. He has also made bold statements about hot industry leader Tesla, stating that BYD “could make a Tesla any minute,” if enough demand was there, and also stating that the Tesla Model S is “a rich man’s toy.” That's not a great way to make friends with other electric car leaders, but it is a good way to get press.
Chuan Fu is certainly an exceptional scientist and business leader. Berkshire Hathaway partner Charlie Munger has described him as “a combination of Thomas Edison and Jack Welch -- something like Edison in solving technical problems, and something like Welch in getting done what he needs to do. I have never seen anything like it.”
Is there any wonder Chuan Fu received a Zayed Future Energy Prize Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014?