More than two decades ago in China, Miao Liansheng made a first tentative step toward harnessing the sun to produce power -- eventually becoming a billionaire.

For a time, it worked, making his Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. the world’s biggest solar panel maker. Then in an all-too-familiar scene for clean energy producers, reality took hold for the 60-year-old former soldier in the People’s Liberation Army.

Miao’s push to dominate photovoltaics lies in pieces after Yingli missed repayment on 1.76 billion yuan ($270 million) of debt and said it’s talking with creditors about refinancing. It’s teetering is starting to look like the collapse of Shi Zhengrong’s Suntech Power Holdings Co. in 2013 -- global aspirations, the amassing of billions of dollars in debt, plunging prices, overcapacity and then retreat.

“It wasn’t easy for Miao to make the company so big," said Zhang Sen, deputy secretary-general of the photovoltaic production unit at the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Machinery and Electronic Products. “Big companies are sometimes more fragile, especially when the market isn’t good.”

In his only public comment on the matter, Miao maintained that Yingli is working to negotiate a resolution on its debt issues. On a conference call on Wednesday, he said the Baoding-based company is seeking to sell assets and line up new investors. A statement on Thursday said no creditors have moved to push the Yingli into insolvency.

“Our major creditors have been helpful,” Miao said on the call. “We strongly believe that we will achieve a successful transition.”

Miao cuts an unusual figure in the world of China’s solar billionaires, since he doesn’t come from an academic background like Shi of Suntech. Instead, he served 13 years in China’s army, according to Wang Zhixin, a manager at Yingli Group’s public relations department.

Military Background

After leaving the military, Miao became a long-distance bus driver. By the 1980s, he had started his own business, eventually selling everything from cosmetics to vegetables and treated water for drinking. In 1993, he began importing a production line of lamps powered by solar energy from Japan, according Wang.

As Yingli’s founder and chairman and largest shareholder, the panel maker’s initial public offering in 2007 helped make Miao for a time the 41st richest man in China with an estimated wealth of 14 billion yuan ($2.15 billion), according to a ranking that year of the richest people in China by the Hurun Report.