Staying Ahead of Change

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.

Sugandha Khurana

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