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February 2, 2021

China’s already booming green industries are expected to be turbocharged after President Xi Jinping’s vow in September to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. And the European Union is developing a Green Deal requiring hundreds of billions of euros in annual investment. In the U.S., meanwhile, Biden in his early days has rejoined the Paris climate agreement and proposed a $2 trillion clean energy plan. That could boost demand for lithium-powered energy storage and electric cars nearly sevenfold over the next five years, according to Bloomberg Intelligence research.

“It’s a new generation of growth in the clean energy sector, and it has just started,” says Andy Wong, chief investment strategist of LW Asset Management. “With the technology upgrades in smart grid and energy storage, the rollout of new products—no matter whether it’s for solar panels or electric vehicles—is faster than before and consumers are also adapting to the upgrades quickly.”

More than half the list is made up of tycoons who make either electric vehicles or the batteries that power them. Sales of passenger electric cars reached almost 3 million last year, with Chinese buyers responsible for more than a third of that, according to BloombergNEF data. That’s enriched Chinese billionaires such as Wang Chuanfu, Lv Xiangyang, and Xia Zuoquan, the top shareholders of battery and electric automaker BYD Co., as well as Liu Jincheng, chairman of lithium-battery company Eve Energy Co.

Billionaires in solar, an industry that’s experienced multiple booms and busts in its relatively short history, are reaping the benefits of a sustained surge in demand that not even Covid-19 could dent. The world saw a record 137 gigawatts of new solar installation last year, according to BNEF’s latest estimates. Solar billionaires including Li Zhenguo, Li Chunan, and Li Xiyan, the top shareholders of Longi Green Energy Technology—the world’s biggest manufacturer of solar-panel components—make up the next-largest group on the list.

There are two outliers whose green fortunes are unrelated to cars, batteries, or sunshine: A German wind-turbine manufacturing magnate and an Australian with a U.S. paper-recycling empire round out the list.

As with all industries, surging valuations are bringing out the sceptics and leading some to call renewables a bubble. Jagdeep Singh, CEO of QuantumScape Corp., lost $2.4 billion in December after shares of the electric-vehicle battery maker plunged more than 60%, knocking him from a possible place in this ranking. The net worth of Nikola Corp. founder Trevor Milton has tumbled 38% since a short seller accused the electric-truck startup of fraud last year, an allegation Milton denied before resigning. 

Two other fortunes on last year’s list of the 10 wealthiest green billionaires—Jose Manuel Entrecanales and Somphote Ahunai—dropped below the cutoff for this year’s top 15, in a sign of volatility. Green titans may stand to lose some of their billions if the frenzy abates as renewable energy becomes the baseline option. Still, there’s no dispute that the transformation heralded by these billionaires is well underway.

There’s also the chance that the greenest billionaires will get less green as their fortunes grow. Musk has invested in some decidedly un-green industries. The core product of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, is rockets that spew thousands of tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. The company—Musk’s second-largest asset—has revealed its plans to drill for natural gas near its Texas headquarters.

Then again, the Tesla co-founder is also pointing the way to new technologies that might one day produce billionaires for this list. Musk said last month that he’s looking to give a $100 million prize for breakthrough carbon-capture technology. That nascent industry of sucking CO₂ from the air is tiny right now, but the International Energy Agency expects carbon capture to grow as much as 200-fold to meet the world’s climate goals.

1. Elon Musk
Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive officer, became the richest person on the planet earlier this year thanks to the company’s surging stock price. It's Gigafactory 1 is the world’s highest-volume battery plant.

Net Worth: $199.2b

Green Net Worth: $180.7b

Tesla vehicles have been driven more than 10 billion miles to date, resulting in combined savings of more than 4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

2. Zeng Yuqun, Huang Shilin, Pei Zhenhua, Li Ping
CATL, the world’s biggest maker of EV batteries, supplies car manufacturers including Tesla, Toyota, BMW, and Volvo. Its lithium-ion phosphate batteries were cheap enough to let Tesla trim the price of its Model 3 by almost 10% last year.

Net Worth: $61.6b

Green Net Worth: $60.7b

The company has developed a power pack that can sustain an electric car for more than 1 million miles.

3. Li Zhenguo, Li Chunan, Li Xiyan, Zhong Baoshen
Longi is the world’s largest manufacturer of solar wafers, the building blocks of solar panels. Established in 2000, the company supplies about a quarter of the world’s solar wafers and modules.

Net Worth: $16.1b

Green Net Worth: $16.1b

Longi said in December that Hillhouse Capital Management would buy a 6% stake in the maker of solar products.

4. Wang Chuanfu, Lv Xiangyang, Xia Zuoquan
Wang Chuanfu set up BYD in 1995, and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has owned a stake in the carmaker since 2008. It’s converting Shenzhen’s entire fleet of buses, taxis, and trucks into plug-in electric vehicles.

Net Worth: $33.5b

Green Net Worth: $13.4b

5. Liu Jincheng
Eve Energy is the fifth-largest supplier to China’s EV sector with 5% market share and counts Daimler, BMW, and Xpeng among its customers. It recently produced lithium-ion samples for an EV battery that can be charged in just five minutes.

Net Worth: $10.9b

Green Net Worth: $10.9b

Liu was a torchbearer for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

6. He Xiaopeng, Xia Heng
Founded by ex-Alibaba executive He Xiaopeng in 2014, Xpeng makes an EV sedan and SUV. A third model, an all-electric sedan, will be introduced later this year. The automaker provides free charging services at 670 stations across 100 Chinese cities.

Net Worth: $10.3bn

Green Net Worth: $10.3bn

The company’s latest P7 sedan model will come with features that enable autonomous driving on highways.

7. Anthony Pratt
Pratt owns Georgia-based Pratt Industries, the world’s largest privately-held producer of 100% recycled paper and packaging. The company also runs clean energy plants to help power its mills.

Net Worth: $9b

Green Net Worth: $9b

Pratt Industries says its operations save 85,000 trees, 35 million gallons of water and more than 5,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions every day.

8. Li Bin
Backed by Chinese tech giant Tencent, Nio has surged eightfold in value since its initial public offering in September 2018. The EV maker plans to build a network of 500 power-swap stations—where people can change their car’s battery rather than recharge it—by the end of 2021.

Net Worth: $9b

Green Net Worth: $9b

Nio’s latest all-electric sedan, the ET7, will start at about $69,000 before government subsidies. It’s almost 70% more expensive than an entry-level Tesla Model 3 built in China.

9. Aloys Wobben
Wobben developed his first wind turbine in the 1970s and started Enercon in 1984. The German company, now one of the world’s largest in the sector, has faced challenges in its home country, where delayed approvals for new wind farms damped sales. It appointed a new CEO in November to engineer a turnaround.

Net Worth: $8.9b

Green Net Worth: $8.9b

10. Lin Jianhua
Established in 2003, First Applied Material mainly produces films for solar panels. It makes more than half the world’s ethylene vinyl acetate films, an essential component of solar panels that helps protect them from harsh weather.

Net Worth: $8.7b

Green Net Worth: $8.7b

The company’s shares more than doubled last year.

Source: Bloomberg
Image Source: Bloomberg