Solar Crusader

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The sense of urgency around solar power is palpable. The manpower at the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI), given the scale of work it wants to do and the speed at which it wants to go, is rather limited. A priority is to train people fast and execute more efficiently. Dr Ashvini Kumar, managing director, likes the mix of people working at SECI – youngsters, those with experience and those on deputation from other organisations – and he feels everyone pulls together, but it needs to be expanded.

SECI is not just exploiting the domestic potential but is exploring overseas opportunities, especially through the International Solar Alliance (ISA). “The ISA is a block of a number of countries and the government is providing a lot of grants. As per an estimate, the government would extend Rs 10 billion per year for five years for this. As a company, I need to explore overseas operations. Besides that, the development of projects is also a priority. A lot of products are coming from China; we need to keep a check on quality,” he says.

He also wants to set up a plant. During the RE-Invest event, the corporation gave a commitment to set up 1,000 MW of solar power. The first step has been the setting up of a 10 MW project at Jodhpur, but he wants to do more. The rest will follow, he says, provided the government is supportive and provided the World Bank helps with financing.

With 30 years of experience behind him, Kumar is an industry veteran. He obtained his Ph.D in solar energy from IIT Delhi and has been a major contributor to the promotion and development of solar thermal technology. By writing his Ph.D thesis on solar, which he started in 1978, he was far ahead of his time. Proof of this is that it was not until 1981 that the Centre for Energy Studies was set up at IIT Delhi. For the next five years, Kumar continued working there as a faculty member.

He has great praise for Professor M.S. Sodha, who, at that time, was a very influential person in IIT by virtue of being deputy director. “He was temperamentally very clear, very transparent and very rational. He appreciated my work so from there you started getting the feeling that you were important. It boosted your confidence. And then, because we were good in doing our work, I had the opportunity to contribute to several books at that time published by international publishers, as well as write research papers. So that was something that really raised your confidence,” he says.

In 1986, Kumar joined the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) where he worked in different capacities. As a director in the MNRE, he worked as the divisional head of various activities, including solar grid power and R&D coordination. He also worked at the Solar Energy Centre, a technical institution set up by the MNRE, where he was instrumental in establishing solar thermal testing facilities. After some years, he moved back to the ministry and looked after remote village electrification and a solar programme.

In 2012, he joined SECI, which had been set up a year earlier under the Companies Act as a not-for-profit company with a solar mandate. Last year, the government decided that it should be a regular company because of the need for equity to finance expansion. “If you do that, you cannot limit yourself only to solar. Over the past few years, a lot of changes have been made. We have got our mandate widened to cover the entire spectrum of renewable energy, on a macro level,” he says.

At the micro level, SECI is implementing various schemes of the government. Under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM), the first batch of 750 MW is already completed and another 2,000 MW is under implementation. The third batch of 5,000 MW has been approved.

Another scheme is the rooftop solar scheme. “Earlier, at the time of the MNRE policy, there was some subsidy grant and there were benchmark costs. As there were benchmark costs, nobody knew the actual cost. It was stipulated that SECI should bring out competitive bidding for rooftop solar. We implemented the pilot scheme to begin with. Now, a whole scheme of the MNRE for rooftop is based on bidding. Some very positive takeaways from the scheme were that at that time, the benchmark tariff used to be Rs 130 per peak watt and in the first tender itself, it was brought down to Rs 90, and today it is around Rs 75,” says Kumar.

A third area of activity is solar parks – a very big scheme – and smaller ones such as those for canal tops, canal banks, central public sector undertakings, and defence. SECI also offers project management consultancy. Everybody is interested in setting up solar projects these days but often don’t know how to do it. SECI provides turnkey solutions. Another area is trading, which emerged as one of its activities as a by-product of implementing schemes.

“The main aim is to expand to cover other renewable energy sources because till now, we have been 100 per cent focused on solar, but we need to look at wind, biomass and hybrids, and we have already started working on that,” he says.

Although Kumar enjoyed his time at the MNRE, he says the work at SECI has been particularly satisfying. “The reason is that you are not simply passing orders; you have to make efforts to get results. You conceive something today and you can see it happening. If I work in physics, for example, you talk about various theories, and many things cannot be seen, they are just concepts. In renewable energy, you can see things happening. There’s a solar power plant in six months and in a year you see power flowing out of it. So that’s the most satisfying part,” he says.

As for the sector generally, Kumar feels excited at its growth and is pleased to see the prime minister taking such an interest in it. Solar energy keeps popping up as a subject at international forums. A recent example, he points out, was when Narendra Modi visited Russia and suddenly an MoU was finalised with the Russian Energy Agency. It was a proud moment for him. “For people like us who have been working in solar energy from the time when it was not seen so much, this is a dream come true. It is happening daily and I think it is a very fortunate moment,” he says.

Kumar has co-authored three books, several review articles and over 50 research papers on solar technology. Currently, he is editing the technical journal brought out by the Solar Energy Society of India.

Given the pressure of work, Kumar is able to take a walk in the mornings but not, as he would like to, one in the evenings too. Because the sector is still evolving, there is much work to be done, he says, and a lot of time has to be devoted to the topic. His wife, son and daughter have accepted his passion. He is very relieved, he says, that his wife is currently working in a school and is busy herself. “Otherwise she would have killed me for being in the office all the time. Luckily, she has her work and own people to talk to,” he says.

His approach to people, as a scientist by nature, is that persuasion and discussion work best. This gives people space, allows them to share their thoughts, apply their mind, and let them come out with their views. “This is the kind of approach that I like. You don’t have to intimidate the employees. This is what I feel is very important because through job satisfaction, the employees will contribute more in spite of other available job alternatives. I feel strongly about this and that is how we do things here at SECI,” he says.

In terms of his approach to work, Kumar says he is convinced that renewable energy is a kind of “recurring deposit” that you get daily. “Fossil fuels – coal and gas – are like fixed deposits. Normal wisdom won’t say that you use the fixed deposit till you have recurring deposits. I think that is something which we all need to understand. Mindsets have to change. But I think people are realising this now. So things are moving in favour of renewable energy.” n

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