To hit net zero the world is going to need batteries, lots of them, and in China’s Fujian province Robin Zeng has built an energy storage empire whose global reach and success have provoked envy and alarm at the top levels of US government.

China dominates the global battery manufacturing landscape and Robin Zeng – also known as Zeng Yuqun – has built in Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL) a manufacturing giant that reigns supreme in its home country.

The Renewables Rich List

Recharge turns the spotlight on some of the world’s wealthiest people who are using at least part of their stupendous riches to underpin the energy transition.

Zeng, who holds a PhD from the Institute of Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, founded CATL in his coastal hometown of Ningde in 2011 aiming to target the growing electric vehicle market.

In the decade since, CATL has grown into a battery-making behemoth that is also a major global supplier of lithium-ion batteries for energy storage systems – crucial for helping bring more intermittent wind and solar farms online.

CATL has around a dozen overseas facilities, including two in Europe and a major production plant it is developing with Ford in the US.

Listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, CATL is at the time of writing valued at $100bn, while Zeng himself is worth $24bn.

Zeng rarely hits the headlines, however. Bill Russo, former head of carmaker Chrysler’s northeast Asia business in Beijing, previously told Wired that developing the “personality-cult style of leadership” celebrated in the West – with Tesla’s Elon Musk an obvious example – can be “dangerous” in China. “You can't be bigger than Beijing.”

The wild success of Chinese cleantech companies such as CATL pushed US President Joe Biden to pass his landmark Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to develop US manufacturing capacity and cut dependence on China.

CATL’s success in the US, where it is a leading supplier of EV batteries, has prompted suspicion as well as jealousy. Senior US members of Congress recently pressured local utility Duke Energy to remove CATL batteries from a military base over fears they could be a security risk.

Despite strenuous denials of these allegations by CATL, Duke Energy plans to phase out using its batteries entirely – a potentially worrying sign of things to come for the Chinese company.

Zeng, who featured on TIME’s list of the world’s most influential 100 people last year, recently called for countries to set aside such concerns to help speed the race to net zero. “We are fighting climate change,” he told a panel at Davos. “So whatever the geopolitical issues are, we have to find a way.”

Get the Recharge News App
Read high quality news and insight on the energy transition on-the-go