Interview with Mahesh Palashikar: “India is emerging as the most attractive energy market”

“India is emerging as the most attractive energy market”

In a recent interview with Power Line, Mahesh Palashikar, president, GE South Asia, shared his views on the country’s energy transition, net zero goals, and the optimal energy mix going forward. He also spoke about his outlook for the power sector in the near to medium term, and new technologies and solutions that can help fast-track India’s decarbonisation plans. Excerpts…

What is your perspective on the current state of the power sector?     

The power sector is today at the cusp of massive change as India prepares to transition to newer and cleaner sources of energy. Due to this massive transformation, there is a flurry of activity in the power sector with diverse power sources being integrated into the grid and, in turn, modernising the grid and enabling it to handle these new sources of power. The power sector has also traditionally had highest emissions, and today, we see a growing focus among operators on making their businesses cleaner and more sustainable. As the power sector modernises and prepares itself for the big transition, we must focus on improving the financial health of the power sector, especially the discoms. An improvement in their operational and financial performance will definitely help improve the power sector. With better policy and market assistance, the sector will be well on its path to achieve a higher share of renewables in the energy mix through business models that are self-sufficient.

How do you rate the country’s performance in advancing energy transition in the past one to two years?

In the past two years, the country has done well in terms of maintaining the momentum of energy transition. The government has rightly focused on a range of commitments – the Glasgow commitment of net zero by 2070, and the intermediate commitment of achieving 50 per cent power generation from renewable sources by 2030. These will be significant milestones that are good for our journey. Energy transition is a complex task that requires intent, investment and perseverance towards the end goal. Energy transition from yesterday’s 70 per cent coal-fired power generation to tomorrow’s 50 per cent non-fossil is not easy and we need to be mindful of that. And, thus, we must make the most prudent use of the abundance of natural resources at our disposal.

India has taken rapid strides in enabling energy transition and we are now the world’s third-largest renewable energy producer, with 40 per cent of energy capacity installed in 2022 (160 GW of 400 GW) coming from renewable sources. The country has done well and is poised to do much more in the decade to come.

According to you, what should be the optimal energy mix going forward in view of the growing uptake of renewables?

As we know well, the journey towards decarbonisation and energy transition will occur across stages. As of now, India remains largely dependent on coal-fired plants, and these plants are unlikely to retire overnight. We cannot also forget that the coal economy is a massive one that sustains several lives and livelihoods. Nonetheless, the transition is imminent and under way. We see an influx of natural resources, especially the trinity of solar, wind and hydro. Along with coal and these three clean sources, we will need additional support from gas-fired power generation and nuclear power plants. Broadly, these six or seven sources of energy, supported by cost-effective energy storage solutions, will play a collaborative role in building and sustaining an efficient energy ecosystem. We recently published a white paper titled “Decarbonisation of India’s Energy Sector: Policy Roadmap to Achieve Clean Energy targets”, which delves into the nuances of what will be an ideal mix. The white paper shows that a combination of renewables, gas and storage has the capacity to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 45-60 per cent, and this needs to be complemented with air quality control systems and clean coal technologies, such as flue gas desulphurisation technology to further bring down the emission intensity in the economy.

What, according to you, are the near-term and long-term challenges for India’s net-zero targets by 2070?

India has significantly amped its efforts towards renewable energy transition. Now, for a fully decarbonised tomorrow, India’s preference for solar must adapt and also accommodate other options like wind, hydro, green hydrogen, and eventually multiple hybrid solutions backed by sufficient storage capacities. We need to give a special place to natural gas as an effective intermediate solution and improve its accessibility and affordability. The scope for nuclear is still very limited and we need to invest in technology to improve access. Simultaneously, we must improve the efficiency of our coal power plants that will remain relevant in India’s energy mix, as the country is well aware.  While we take a step back from building new coal power plants, we must find ways to make the existing plants more efficient by controlling their emissions. Financing, deepening of the green bond market and timely execution of projects will be critical moving ahead.

In the near term, sources must be diversified, coal power plants must be made more efficient, and deployment of funding must be strengthened. Eventually, in the long term, we need to move towards nuclear and round-the-clock hybrid power systems; and develop a robust financing infrastructure that can fully support innovation and logistics in the country.

What are some of the new technologies and solutions that can help fast-track India’s decarbonisation plans?

Today, India is emerging as the most attractive energy market. Now, further policy interventions in financing and leaps in technology will take the country towards a cleaner and more prosperous tomorrow. Energy storage solutions feature most prominently here. Renewables come with the underlying challenge of intermittency and to overcome this, it is essential that we develop a robust storage mechanism. Now, given the scale needed to achieve round-the-clock power with renewable sources of energy and the cost involved, there is need for focused support for further development of existing technology (like pumped storage hydropower) and adoption of new technologies, including long-term storage solutions like compressed air energy storage.

Going forward, the regulatory framework for all forms of storage needs to be strengthened to spur development, innovation and adoption of new technologies. Along with solar, India needs to develop robust financing and technological solutions for the wind power segment too. Currently, India lacks the domestic manufacturing technology for offshore wind such as longer rotor blades with high tech materials such as newer composite materials (for instance carbon fibre) that are stronger, more reliable, and environment friendly and can be produced economically and at scale. The creation of a domestic manufacturing ecosystem for large-scale wind turbines and components will reduce costs and increase the adoption of new technologies. Moving ahead, we also need to focus on developing sufficient carbon capture storage and utilisation technologies to combat the uncontrolled use of carbon.

What is the outlook for the power sector in the near to medium term?

As discussed, the power sector is witnessing a massive change, and this is expected to sustain for the next few decades as the country makes the renewable energy transition in a sustainable and efficient way. In the near term, there will certainly be transitionary challenges due to the transformation of conventional energy systems. In the medium to long term, there will be eventual stability and significant progression towards a new way of generating and distributing power. Improved financial health of the power sector and the availability of adequate funding will play a critical role in shaping the future that is expected to be decarbonised and clean.

What are your top priorities for GE?

GE has been a committed partner to India’s energy sector since 1902. Over the years, we have powered several significant projects starting from our first hydro project on the river Cauvery, in present day Karnataka. Today, more than 50 per cent of power flow in India is managed through GE’s equipment and software, over 3.5 million homes are powered by GE wind energy while GE Power executes around 25.2 GW of emission control projects in India. GE Power also has an installed base of over 260 gas turbines in India. Our top priority today is to be the most resilient partner for India’s power sector by providing it with affordable, reliable and sustainable solutions, as it transitions to decarbonise itself.

Innovation has been our most prized vision. Our tech solutions work with multiple fuels (wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, gas, coal), along with hybrids and energy storage. GE has invested over $400 million globally to develop the world’s most powerful offshore wind turbine. In May 2021, GE released the concept of futuristic floating wind farms that allays fears about the impact on fishing, birds and seaside views. They also automatically adjust to catch gales without tipping over. Another shining example is the 2.7-132 wind turbine, specially designed and made in India for India, which delivers high performance at low wind speeds. We offer end-to-end green electricity solutions to power electrolysers and provide customised hybrid solutions by analysing site conditions for the lowest levellised cost of electricity. We are providing advanced tech for increasing efficiency, flexibility, carbon capture; reducing emissions; and enabling the switch to hydrogen.

Renewable energy, gas power, steam power, hybrid power, hybrids, storage solutions, grid stability – our priorities are many but with one defined goal of enabling holistic and sustainable energy transition. As in the last 120 years, we remain committed to India’s power sector to build a sustainable economy that works with efficiency and profitability.