by Connie Ma, Alumni & Community Outreach Officer
Calvin Cheng ’06 always knew he wanted to work in sustainability. After completing his MBA at the University of Southern California and returning to work in Taiwan, he founded PGE, a company centered on bringing renewable energy to Taiwan. In this interview, Calvin shares his background and journey, lessons in entrepreneurship, and how he hopes Taiwan can embrace renewable energy to meet its net zero goal by 2050.
What was your experience at TAS as a student like? How long were you a TAS Tiger?
I started at TAS in Grade 4. Honestly, it was amazing here. English really was my second language, and my language skills now are a testament to the educational system at TAS. During my time here, I thought TAS struck a good balance between academics, clubs, and sports. I played varsity rugby for two years and made IASAS my junior and senior years.
What are some of your favorite memories at TAS? Favorite teachers, classes, and clubs?
Some of my favorite memories were of traveling with my classmates. In junior year, we went to Jakarta for IASAS, which was super hot, but it was just nice to leave the country and meet people outside of TAS. In sophomore year, we also went to Italy on a CELP [Curricular Experiential Learning Program] trip, and that was one of my favorite memories. Some of my favorite teachers were Mr. Flemming, who was our PE and rugby coach, Mrs. Wang, who taught middle school math, and Mr. Kirkwood who taught freshman history. I did the IB diploma junior and senior year, and Theory of Knowledge was one of my favorite classes all about critical thinking. I also became an officer of Amnesty International my senior year.
How did your TAS education and experiences shape your life outside of school?
TAS can sometimes feel like a really enclosed bubble. It can feel like TAS is everything, and my advice is that you must get comfortable meeting new people, especially when you go to college. Get out of your comfort zone and do something new. You do develop really amazing relationships with people at TAS. Some of my best friends are people I’ve known since middle school. It’s a unique experience to be an international school student in Taiwan. You’re kind of like a Third Culture Kid. When you go to the States, you don’t exactly fit in with people there. When you’re here, you don’t exactly fit in with the locals either. So that unique identity is a bond you share with people you grew up with. No matter where you go and how your career paths grow differently, it’s really humbling to have a strong foundation of people who remember you as that goofy kid in school.
How did you figure out what you wanted to do? What prompted you to found PGE?
I majored in business administration at Boston University. After graduating, I came back to Taiwan, and my first job was at a big four accounting firm, Ernst & Young. I worked there before and after my year of military service, and that helped me understand that was not what I wanted to do. While preparing for the GMAT, I worked for our family business in energy infrastructure. I always envisioned myself working there, but I wanted to do my own thing. My passion is sustainability, the environment, and I have always loved the outdoors. My MBA program at the University of Southern California focused on solar and wind energy.
My mind was always set on Taiwan, and my original idea was that I would rejoin my family business to start a new branch working on renewable energy. In 2017, when I moved back, I found that renewable energy development in Taiwan is dictated by a lot of policies. I helped my family build a solar project on one of our factory roofs, and it was a crash course in Taiwanese regulations, meeting contacts in the industry, and working with the Board of Directors. I soon realized that there were other opportunities I could more easily pursue, but it was a struggle for me at first. All my life, I saw my grandpa and father working for this company, and I envisioned myself working there. But I also think it’s important to know what you’re passionate about and take a leap of faith. So my partner and I started the company with less than $100,000 USD in 2018, and now our working capital is more than 30 million USD.
Tell us about PGE and what your company does. What are some examples of what you’re working on?
We’re kind of like property developers for renewable energy. We develop rooftops, we lease farmland, or just any piece of land, and we will build solar panels there. We take care of getting permits, applying to Taipower, and working with banks to fund and then build the project. Once it’s interconnected with Taipower’s grid, we sell the energy to them. This year, we’re working with over 40 public schools throughout Taiwan. Any kind of space which is not being used, we’ll put solar panels on it. Taiwan has pledged by 2050 to be net-zero, and we’re helping Taiwan get there. Right now we’re finishing a special project at a public school in New Taipei City where we built a solar platform on top of their basketball court so it’s shaded from sun and rain.
What are the biggest challenges or setbacks you’ve faced in starting your own business?
The biggest challenge is to remember the original reason you started. The start is always the most exciting. If you get bogged down, just take a step back and remember the reason you’re doing this. There’s also a cultural issue. For me, since I went to local school and served in the military, I can fit in culturally, as I speak, read and write Mandarin well. If you think one day you’re going to come back to Taiwan and work, you need to make sure you work on your Mandarin.
Moving forward, what are your short-term and long-term goals for PGE?
In the next five years, I see us being a top 10 player in solar in Taiwan. The most fundamental reason why I’m doing this is to raise awareness of sustainability and climate change, because I want more people to care about it. Taiwan is an amazing home and a comfortable place. People are nice here, but sometimes, they don’t attach themselves to things that are happening globally. I want to raise that awareness.
What does Taiwan’s future in renewable energy look like? Does it include nuclear as well as solar, wind, and water?
It’s all about regulation. In Taiwan, a lot of things don’t get done without 100% consensus, so it’s hard to do anything. I’m not saying renewable is 100% positive, but there are so many positive aspects to it both short-term and long-term. We need strong regulations to support it, and Taiwan needs green energy. For every one person with lung cancer in the north, there are 30 people with lung cancer in the south. That’s not a statistical anomaly. The coal-fired plants and industries are down south. When you take the HSR past Taichung, you can’t even see the sky.
From a very realistic perspective, nuclear is a part of our future as well. Renewable energy is intermittent, because you can’t turn on the sun or wind. Even hydroelectricity is subject to drought, and climate change can cause very extreme weather patterns. Stability is the number one priority for energy, and our baseload currently comes from coal and gas. Recently, China was encircling Taiwan with military exercises. The gas reserves in Taiwan are only at seven days. If we were cut off, we would be out of energy within a week. The technology now for nuclear reactors is way beyond the 1960s and 1970s when plants like Fukushima were built. If we want to kick our addiction to fossil fuels, we need to think about all the alternatives.
Everyone should try to pitch in however they can. Maybe you have a piece of land that you want to utilize. Everyone is an energy consumer, but it would surprise people how easy it can be to become an energy generator. It must be a national effort to hit our goals.
Reflecting back on your experience at TAS, what would you like to tell your high school self? What advice would you give to current students at TAS?
Keep it fun. It’s important for you to get serious about college, but where you go for college does not define who you are in the future and where your career will take you. Stay fun, healthy, and find new interests. Don’t be so focused on your grades and your SAT scores. Once you’re on the career path, it’s about how personable you are, how good your critical thinking skills are, but in a test-driven setting, your critical thinking can go out the window. What do you do with your experience when you’re in college is what really matters.