Green China

Chinese company lights up prospects of Midwest city

Updated: 2011-01-14 14:09

By Zhang Yuwei (China Daily)

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Chinese company lights up prospects of Midwest city

Wanxiang America President Ni Pin and a US staff member checking an auto part just shipped in from China at the company's warehouse in Elgin, Illinois. ][Photo / China Daily]

ROCKFORD, Illinois - About four months ago when John Coonrod, 50, sent his resume to Wanxiang New Energy, he could barely pronounce the Chinese company's name.

After working for a local fastener company for more than 23 years, Coonrod, a machine builder by training, became unemployed earlier last year.

Coonrod, jobless for four months, found out about Wanxiang at a local employment seminar and was later recruited as a maintenance mechanic, with a dozen others, for the initial operation.

Wanxiang New Energy - set up by Wanxiang America, a Chicago-based Chinese company - is so far the only solar panel manufacturing plant in the Midwest. By 2015, the plant is expected to employ more than 200 workers.

The Wanxiang Group is one of China's largest auto parts suppliers, with more than $10 billion in annual revenue.

The Rockford plant is Wanxiang America's latest endeavor to enter the new energy market by taking advantage of the increasing demand for solar energy in the US while creating more jobs for Americans.

"Solar energy is becoming more and more popular in the United States, and in the world as well. The market is poised for rapid growth," said Ni Pin, president of Wanxiang America.

Daniel Li, a project manager at Wanxiang America, said that for Wanxiang, an auto part producer, its steel and iron-based industries will eventually be transformed to solar and electricity.

He said the US has the potential to become the biggest market for solar panel manufacturers and consumers.

In August, Illinois announced a more-than-$4 million stimulus grant for an up to 62 megawatt Rockford solar project, the largest photovoltaic solar development in the Midwest, and one of the largest in the US.

At the same time, Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn signed a law mandating that 6 percent of the state's power has to come from solar sources by 2015.

Wanxiang's initiative, in a mid-sized city with a population of 157,000, is backed by the local government.

The company received 4.86 hectares of land and $500,000 in grants from Illinois to build the plant, which is expected to double in size over the next five years.

Brent Anderson, manager of Wanxiang New Energy, said it's "all about job creation in Rockford".

Ni said Wanxiang's goal is to expand the plant by three times to meet demand resulting from the state's solar-energy mandate.

Ni has a reputation of being an "extremely smart businessman and a master negotiator" who oversees the operation of Wanxiang America, which he set up in 1995.

But for the past few years, Ni has been known as someone who creates jobs for Americans.

Rockford hasn't escaped the financial crisis and the country's slow economic recovery. A lot of big companies have closed in the area, which is heavily reliant on the manufacturing industry.

Chrysler, which has a big plant not far from Wanxiang's solar plant, had to let a lot of workers go over the past three years.

US Department of Labor data shows that the city has a 14 percent unemployment rate.

Now, Rockford is aiming to attract renewable-energy and high-tech companies such as Wanxiang to the city.

"Wanxiang is like paving a road for everybody else," Anderson said.

About a dozen workers on one shift produce 55 solar panels a day.

"Now we have about 400 job applications in the pipeline and we have been reviewing a second and third shift," Anderson said.

By adding the shifts he hopes to produce more than 100 panels a day.

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The panels are sold mainly to installers, with some shipped to local schools for science projects.

"A big software company in Wisconsin just ordered 1,200 panels from us," Anderson said.

Ni said he hopes the output will be "50 times 15" a year from now, leading to the plant's expansion.

Wanxiang is also partnering with New Generation Power of Chicago to build a 62 megawatt solar farm on another 160 hectares of airport land. It will be the region's largest and produce about an eighth of what the smallest nuclear power plant would produce annually.

Coonrod believes the new-energy industry will bring more new opportunities to Rockford.

"I have been around this town for a long time, for the past 30 years. It was a very large manufacturing town but right now there is not much around here," said Coonrod, adding he never thought he would end up working for a Chinese company.


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