As managing director and director, Energy Business, Wärtsilä India, Venkatesh R. is at the helm of the energy transition initiatives of the company. His aim is to deliver ever smarter solutions to keep customers one step ahead…
Born in a quaint village in South India, Venkatesh R. was raised there in a close-knit family, which nurtured a caring and positive attitude in him, a quality he has carried with him through adulthood. And it is with this attitude that he has been able to navigate the intricacies and challenges of the energy sector, sitting at the helm of Wärtsilä India’s energy business.
Established in 1834, Wärtsilä has been at the forefront of engineering and technological innovation. Whether it is recognising the potential of renewable energy back in the mid-2000s, or learning to adapt to the changed realities when the pandemic broke out last year, the company has remained a proactive player in the Indian power sector. The energy landscape is in transition towards more flexible and sustainable energy systems, and Wärtsilä is lea-ding this transition. “As an energy system integrator, we understand, design, build and serve optimal power systems for future generations,” says Venkatesh.
The company’s vision is in line with the country’s energy trajectory, according to Venkatesh. Given the multiple imperatives of “sustainability, energy access and energy self-sufficiency while driving and sustaining rapid economic growth”, renewables are set to see major growth. “The energy systems of the world will change dramatically. That is a big change because the energy system of the future will be dependent on the availability of the sun. That puts totally different requirements on other parts of the energy system. This also means that there has to be a balance for the variations in solar and wind,” says Venkatesh. Wärtsilä supports the integration of renewable energy through solutions that provide the required system flexibility – flexible engine-based power generation, energy storage and new technologies such as Power-to-X. “As the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow, the importance of having flexible solutions such as fast starting engine power plants and batteries in the power system increases,” he says.
Emphasising the role of renewable energy, Venkatesh notes that it is rapidly becoming the pulse of the sector. “Renewables are challenging thermal. Coal usage will become less in India in times to come, but it will still remain, as solar and wind cannot be available all the time. Coal will continue to provide baseload power for some time to come.”
The next step, according to him, should be improving the quality and reliability of power. This requires a clear policy on batteries to efficiently integrate renewables into the grid and meet the government’s ambitious renewable energy targets. To this end, Wärtsilä acquired Greensmith Energy Management Systems, Inc., a market leader in grid-scale energy storage software and integrated solutions. This acquisition has enabled the company to rapidly expand its footprint in the energy storage market globally and position itself as a premier energy system integrator. Apart from this, it has introduced a new hybrid solar PV and storage system to deliver a true “renewables as baseload” solution that is not only climate-friendly and increases resilience and efficiencies, but can also be supported by a power producer’s existing grid infrastructure. Recently, Wärtsilä delivered a 15 MW solar PV hybrid power plant – the largest in the world – to Essakane Solar SAS in Burkina Faso. “As our global energy ecosystem evolves, hybrid solar represents a ground-breaking approach to electricity production and power generation,” says Venkatesh.
Unfazed by industry changes and challenges, Venkatesh takes them in his stride. They act as a good booster, he believes, and helps keep pace with developments as they happen. “The industry has undergone huge changes and renewables are the clear way ahead for the sector. It is this continual learning that is so exciting about the sector we are in,” he says.
The two main challenges facing the Indian power sector, according to him, are fuel supply uncertainty and the deteriorating discom finances. Further, several customers have been impacted by the pandemic. But Venkatesh is confident that they will come through this crisis. “As an organisation, we have a very robust strategy and vision that will prevail even after the pandemic and in the future. The energy transition has given us an enormous opportunity, and a great potential for growth. We will continue working closely with our customers every step of the way, helping them find their optimal path towards renewable energy systems,” he says.
The pandemic has, in fact, sped up the transition towards green energy. The Wärtsilä Energy Transition Lab has been set up to showcase facts and figures explaining how the electricity markets have been functioning with renewable energy over the past six months. In the face of the pandemic, Wärtsilä Expertise Centres in the Middle East and Asia expanded to 24×7 manned operations to continue to offer support to customers. These centres provide operational support and maintenance planning to customers in energy industries that have a life cycle solution agreement with the company. The company’s project teams in India continued to execute construction and commissioning projects for global customers, even during the challenging pandemic period.
What’s next for the company? Venkatesh enthusiastically lists the many projects and plans in the pipeline. One of the futuristic areas that Wärtsilä is working on is converting energy into fuel. The company’s focus is on the transition towards a decarbonised economy, powered by renewable energy and enabled by power system flexibility, to deliver greater energy affordability, reliability and sustainability. “Wärtsilä will continue leading the transition towards a 100 per cent renewable energy future and help our customers unlock the value of the energy transition by optimising their energy systems and future-proofing their assets,” says Venkatesh.
The company’s state-of-the-art factory at Khopoli in Maharashtra manufactures auxiliaries/pipe modules and reconditions and upgrades engines, ship propellers and components. It also integrates high speed diesel generator sets for marine requirements. “We will be looking at how to utilise the factory for enhancing our business to Make in India and make Wärtsilä more competitive while supporting local and global business demands. We are also looking at how we can indigenise more, with a high quality of our products. That is a part of the strategy,” shares Venkatesh. “In India, we are directly engaging with stakeholders, be it states or utilities, to educate and help them bring clarity to their own planning processes and decision-making. We want to help them in making the right decisions and prepare them for the future,” he adds.
For the Atlas of 100% Renewable Energy, Wärtsilä has modelled 145 countries and regions to find an optimal way to produce electricity from 100 per cent renewable energy sources. The map illustrates what the power system of each of these regions would look like if it were to be optimally built from scratch, not considering the burden of existing power plants. Each region has unique solar and wind conditions, which make the optimal energy mix for each region unique.
Venkatesh’s work with the global organisation has taken him to some very interesting places around the globe. He has worked on multiple international projects, with the most memorable one being the move to Finland’s sunniest city, Vaasa. “It was a big change in terms of culture and environment,” he shares, “This move helped in sharing my knowledge and experience to enhance the global business needs of the company. An assignment that was intended for a few years turned out to be for a decade, with value-adding experiences in a variety of functions such as business strategy, project management, operational development and QEHS, resulting in both personal and professional growth. Needless to mention, I enjoyed it to the core.”
As a leader, Venkatesh values his team and considers them the most important resources, who play a pivotal role in the successful functioning of the organisation, he believes. His caring attitude and other qualities inculcated in him as a child are much appreciated by his family as well as colleagues. “To remain humble and grateful is a life lesson I have learnt after observing my father and other mentors from my early years,” he says.
Influenced by the great service of medical professionals in his childhood days, Venkatesh later became fascinated with automation and how technological development transformed the work we do, and this led him to become an engineer. “We are today living in a world where machines are managed remotely and a lot of intelligence is built into systems. This is even true in business situations. In the recent pandemic times, we were able to support customers remotely, guiding smooth day-to-day operations. AI and machine learning, coupled with smart data management, are the key enablers of business. I am very happy to be a part of this big change in enabling intelligent business decision-making,” he says.
He believes that a healthy work-life balance is a prerequisite for good health, and is also the best way to contribute whole-heartedly to the work one undertakes. “I encourage my fellow colleagues to spread this belief within their teams as also practise it themselves,” says Venkatesh. Some of his tips to maintain a healthy work-life balance: “I break tasks into small chunks for a clear focus and use technology for better planning and time management of activities, including personal engagements.” His interests include travelling, reading, listening to music, meditation and light exercises. Family provides a strong foundation and pillar of support for Venkatesh, who leans on them for guidance and support. “My family is always there to inspire and encourage me in overcoming challenges as well as to cheer me on my accomplishments,” he says proudly. His wife, Suma, also works with Wärtsilä in the finance function, and their son, Akhil, is pursuing a double degree in economics and business at the University of California, Berkeley, in the US.