Sanjeev Aggarwal wants to sell you solar energy as an experience. Seriously. But how much experience can a SaaS (solar-as-a-service) provider pack in the panels on rooftops, inverters and batteries underneath, and software in the cloud? No straight answers; instead, a statement: “We are selling it to four of the world’s largest ‘energy’ companies [in India].”
For an energy professional who decided to strike out on his own in 2010, his initial proposed coal and gas plants nearly burnt him down. Coal in India was hit by the mega coal block allocation scam post 2009. “No new project was awarded since I started,” he says. The pivot to gas was no better. “We set up a plant in Rajasthan, got an environmental clearance but then, gas bombed. We were a little better than Anil Ambani, [vice-chairman of Reliance Industries, India’s largest industrial group, who was then also the owner of Reliance Natural Resource Ltd],” he says, suppressing a chuckle.
Soon after, Aggarwal, founder and chief executive of Amplus Solar, hit gold with distributed solar energy. Building, operating and maintaining solar plants on rooftops of businesses, who pay anywhere between Rs 4.50 to Rs 6 per unit of electricity, cheaper than what they pay for grid electricity, worked out well. So well that, today, with 200MW of rooftop plants installed and another 50MW under construction, Amplus is the largest operator in the country. From GE and Schneider to Amazon and Walmart, scores of global brands across industries have bought into his ‘experience’ story.
All this while, it was big solar that kept the market warm (or cold if you are on the other side): solar power auctions went up, costs of panels plummeted, tariffs nose-dived and many bidders got one-two punch as business viability got shaken. (We wrote about it earlier.) Now, as big solar slows, the government has begun talking of residential rooftop solar, with a likely rent-a-roof policy. Whether India is making large-scale solar announcements to keep to the 100GW solar target of 2022 (where 40GW has to come from rooftop), or whether it wants to replicate the residential solar revolution of Germany, is all too unclear. Merely 1.3GW has been installed on rooftops till date.
But it’s the industrial rooftop where companies like Amplus and Cleanmax Solar—two largest developers—have found their sweet spots at a scorching pace.
The cost reduction solar story is over, says Sushant Arora, co-founder of Cleanmax in Mumbai. It was good as long as it lasted because it brought solar to levels competitive with other technologies. Rooftop solar reached a tipping point in 2014-15 when net metering began to be widely adopted by states, allowing operators to inject surplus electricity into the grid.