Interview: Sandhya Sundararagavan

Sandhya Sundararagavan

We Need to Create Employment Opportunities that would Inspire Women to Join Clean Energy Space

April 29, 2021. By Manu Tayal

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Sandhya Sundararagavan

Q: “Utilities to Start Advance Planning for Storage Requirement, Revisit Plan in Every 2-3 Yrs”

Ans: Utilities should start planning as to how much storage will be needed and where should these be located on the grid and revisit this plan (along with RE addition plans in tandem) at least every 2-3 years. Most importantly, regulators should ensure that regulations for ancillary services, market mechanisms, tariff structures, incentives, and safety standards are in place for smooth integration of storage onto the grid.

In an exclusive interaction series with women influencers in the power sector, Manu Tayal, Associate Editor, Energetica India, interacted with Sandhya Sundararagavan, Lead, Energy Transitions, World Resources Institute India. Here’re some edited excerpts from that interaction:

Q: “Tell Energetica India readers in brief about yourself, your educational background, and how has been your journey so far, being a woman, in the renewable energy space?”

Ans: Currently, I am leading the Energy Transitions work at World Resources Institute India where I work with the team to provide technical solutions, support in the implementation of progressive policies, and develop strategies for sustainable clean energy transformation at the state level. Previously, I had the opportunity to lead programs that focused on renewable grid integration, power sector planning, and distribution sector reforms in other premier institutions in the energy space, including The Energy Resources Institute (TERI), Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), and Climate Policy Initiative (CPI).
The ratio of women to male engineers in the mechanical department during my engineering days was 1:20. As a woman, I took it as a challenge to break the stereotype and followed my passion to work in the renewable sector. Since then, I have enjoyed working in this space and it has been an exciting journey so far!

Q: “In your view, to ramp up electric vehicle penetration in India, what needs to be done? Will the recent rise in prices of petrol and diesel, too, help in boosting the adoption of EVs?”

Ans: EV policies at the state level have been a good starting point. States need to develop a firm implementation plan with targets, policy incentives, and fiscal support needed to encourage investments in the EV space. Domestic manufacturing of battery packs and robust public charging infrastructure could provide the impetus for the adoption of EVs in the country.

The recent hike in petrol and diesel prices and the uncertainty could be seen as an opportunity to explore alternate fuels and technological options like fuel cells and RE-based EV solutions.

Q: “Is this the right time for India to work simultaneously on aggressive policies for recycling of batteries, solar modules, etc as well? What do you think?”

Ans: Yes, Absolutely! New rules were proposed by the government on battery waste management last year. It is about time to start carving out implementation plans for setting up recycling plants along with structured processes, protocols, and timelines.

As the RE sector continues to evolve, we need to be more mindful of adverse impacts on the community and environment that may arise from this sector’s supply chain and operations. The renewable sector now has the opportunity to take proactive actions towards a just and regenerative future. Renewable Energy to Responsible Energy is one such initiative.

Q: “What do you think are the biggest challenges in the Electricity market and what could be the key solutions?”

Ans: Markets help bring greater resource efficiency, optimal utilization of stranded assets, and a reduced need for long-term Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs). The biggest hurdle, in my opinion, has been the lack of clarity about market rules, incentive structures, and potential benefits. There is less awareness as to how utilities can leverage market mechanisms in view of existing long-term PPAs and new tendered projects in the pipeline. Markets are physically and financially binding. Market participants need to pay upfront securities and there is limited option for the delay in payments to generators. For utilities with poor financial health, this could be a challenge.

As a starting point, building capacities of utilities, grid operators, renewable development agencies, and other state-level stakeholders is vital for wider uptake. Additionally, robust IT infrastructure to capture data and analytics is critical for a well-functioning market. Finally, it is important to build that confidence level amongst utilities so that they can integrate markets in their power procurement strategies and portfolio of options.

Q: “Will storage solutions/technologies could prove to be a game-changer in power grid management and renewable energy grid integration?”

Ans: The price curves for lithium-ion batteries are already seeing a downward trend. With the deployment of renewable projects coupled with storage, we can expect the price of battery storage technologies to drop further. Yes, storage solutions will aid in transitioning towards a more reliable, flexible, and resilient grid. It will help utilities and grid operators to meet the balancing needs and increase the firmness of renewables. Further, for high RE-rich states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Rajasthan, storage solutions could help in reducing curtailment/spillage since any excess renewable generation can be stored and discharged during periods of low resource availability or even during high demand periods. I believe that RE plus storage is going to become a new normal!

Utilities should start planning as to how much storage will be needed and where should these be located on the grid and revisit this plan (along with RE addition plans in tandem) at least every 2-3 years. Most importantly, regulators should ensure that regulations for ancillary services, market mechanisms, tariff structures, incentives, and safety standards are in place for smooth integration of storage onto the grid.

National Hydrogen Mission is a positive step. Moving forward, there is a need to evaluate the level of maturity, market readiness, applications, and economics of hydrogen technologies, in addition to lithium-ion batteries.

Q: “Where do you see the Indian renewable energy industry’s road towards AatmaNirbhar in the coming years?”

Ans: AatmaNirbhar Bharat Abhiyan has been a refreshing change for the renewable sector and could offer a long-term solution for self-reliance and reduce risks associated with import dependency. With suitable incentive structures and fiscal support, efforts to indigenously develop battery storage technologies and solar components will enable seamless integration of renewable energy, both at the utility and at distributed levels. Since storage systems are modular and scalable, this could prove useful not just for the urban grid but also for meeting productive loads of the rural grid and reliable energy access.

Local manufacturing facilities can create job opportunities, boost economic development, and promote cost-effective solutions. This is the right time to encourage skill workforce development, setting up training facilities and R&D centres to bridge knowledge gaps. It will also provide a platform for social entrepreneurs, researchers, and start-ups to experiment and come up with innovative ideas and disruptive solutions.

Q: “In your view, how more women participation can be achieved in contributing towards a sustainable future?”

Ans: I strongly believe that women can play a very important role in this sector. Most estimates suggest that women account for less than 25% of total employees in the energy sector.

Firstly, women should be inspired to enroll in science and technology programmes. Since the renewable sector is an interdisciplinary field, Energy should be introduced as a mainstream discipline in various universities and academic institutions. This would help us in identifying talent - not just at national but also at sub-national levels.

Secondly, there is insufficient access to practical education and training. Vocational training institutes, specialised skill-based training hubs, and R&D centres should be set up at regional and local levels to encourage more participation from women. This could help women gain practical skills relevant to the power sector through short-term courses, internships, and mentoring programmes.

Thirdly, we need to create employment opportunities that would inspire women to join the clean energy space. Government, corporates, and academic institutions need to come together to create strong progressive policies that would enable increasing women’s employment ratio in this sector.

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