Food cafe PashupathY Gopalan: Changing the face of solar power

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Published: July 23, 2015 12:29:42 AM

The Asia Pacific president of SunEdison, the world’s largest renewable energy company, shares with Sushila Ravindranath how he is expanding India’s solar power base.

When Pashupathy Gopalan decided to move back to India in 2007 he wanted to live in Chennai. “This was a pre-requisite. I wanted to be close to my parents,” the president (Asia Pacific) of the $2.3 billion, US-based SunEdison—the world’s largest renewable energy development company—tells me over breakfast at Mahamudra, a restaurant run by the Isha Foundation. This naturally well-lit, spacious old house in Mylapore that has been repurposed as a restaurant is an ideal place to have a quiet conversation.

Gopalan, has been with the company since 2009 and is responsible for building the company’s solar energy business in this region. A BTech from IIT-BHU he went to the US and earned an MBA from Stanford University. After working in several high tech companies, the decision to move to India coincided with SunEdison wanting to set up operations here. The company manufactures advanced solar technology and develops, finances, installs and operates distributed solar power plants delivering electricity services to residential, commercial, government and utility consumers. SunEdison is today the largest investor in the Indian solar industry and has executed projects at 110 sites amounting to 250 MW in five years and has 850 MW in the pipeline.

It has been non-stop action ever since Gopalan returned to India and joined SunEdison. He has been the driving force behind 450MW of solar power plants in India, Thailand, Malaysia and South Africa and raised over $1billion in debt and equity for these projects. Gopalan and I order wheat rava pongal and medhu vadas. We are served their special chukku (dried ginger) coffee laced with herbs. Gopalan says, “We came in at a time when India was getting serious on solar power. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission was launched in January 2010.” It set an ambitious target of deploying 20,000 MW of grid connected solar power by 2022.

SunEdison entered India with a project in Gujarat. “We were the first to build a utility scale power plant in the country.” A 1MW plant had to be ready for Vibrant Gujarat in 2010. “We delivered. We also implemented the Narmada Canal top project in 2012.” Canal top solar systems are built over water canals. A similar project has been completed in Karnataka recently. “This was a pioneering idea which was tried out with success. Now several other states have expressed interest in canal top projects”, says Gopalan.

“We are developing new ways to bring electricity to those who need it most through a series of partnerships and innovative business models”, he says. For instance, SunEdison and Omnigrid Micropower Company (OMC), which builds small-scale power plants with renewable sources where there is no reliable power grid, have entered into an agreement to develop 5,000 rural projects, representing 250MW of electricity throughout India over the next three to five years.“We are currently building 60 mini grids across India”. Gopalan hopes that this initiative will help make electricity available round-the-clock, every day of the year.

Our breakfast arrives and we ask for more of the coffee, which is caffeine-free. Gopalan tells me about the MoU signed with Karnataka to develop 5GW of renewable energy over the next five years. The electricity generated by these projects will be cost competitive with coal-based power, without subsidies or incentives, and will ease the power shortage in the state. “The immediate plan is to implement between 1,000MW and 1,500MW by end-2016.

Having polished off what we had ordered, we ask for idlis and various chutneys. Gopalan is most passionate about solar water pumps which he believes will be transformational. SunEdison’s Social Innovations team is funding a pilot programme to install 200 solar water pumps for salt pan workers in Gujarat this year. The company will provide financing for the solar water pumps and train 10 SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) members to install and maintain the solar water pump systems. In addition, SEWA will collect payments from salt pan workers in four annual instalments. Following the success of the pilot program, SunEdison and SEWA will work together to secure further funding to scale up the solar water pump programme. “If 25 million agricultural pumps go solar, 20% more electricity is available to the grid. A farmer doesn’t need to use the pump every day of the year. These pumps can feed the grid.” Another 2000 installations are planned in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

Gopalan’s hands have been full setting up projects in 10 other countries in the region. “South Africa is big,” he says. SunEdison, recently announced the acquisition of Singapore-based Continuum Wind Energy Ltd, with assets in India. Continuum owns and operates 242MW AC of wind power plants in Maharashtra and Gujarat apart from 170 MW of wind power under construction in MP. It has more than 1000MW of wind power plants in development across six states.

This buyout is the biggest in the clean energy sector in the country so far. “All these assets we have built and acquired over the last five years will serve us to take our asset portfolio public,” says Gopalan. To do that SunEdison has formed TerraForm Global Inc, to own and operate some of its power plants in emerging markets. TerraForm is going in for an IPO. It will operate as a “yield co”, a corporate structure used by renewable energy companies to bundle up power plants and spin them off. TerraForm Global operates solar, wind and hydro-electric projects in countries including China, India, South Africa and Brazil, with a total capacity of 987.8MW. Gopalan is now fully involved in the listing of TerraForm in the US.

SunEdison was named India’s best solar power producer by IPPAI (Independent Power Producers Association of India) and Deloitte, and was recognised globally for the ground breaking Gujarat Narmada Canal Top Solar project in 2012. It was also named as India’s most Innovative Developer for 2014. Gopalan himself has been chosen for the “Solar Power (Grid & Off-Grid) Person of the Year 2014-15” award by the Renewable World Awards 2014-15. “This was quite unexpected,” he says as we have one more cup of chukku coffee.

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