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Sourabh Sen of Astonfield: ''India's cost targets more ambitious than most''

Thin Film Today 2010-06-29

Thin Film Today speaks to Sourabh Sen, co-founder of South Asia´s renewable energy company, Astonfield Renewable Resources, on the heels of its tie up with Belectric to build a 5MW solar power plant in Osiyan, Rajasthan--the first utility-scale solar power plant commissioned by Belectric under India’s National Solar Mission. Elizabeth Block asks his take on how thin film will fit within India´s renewable energy plans amongst a wall of challenges.

Interview By Elizabeth Block

Thin Film Today: What are your views on India's solar mission?

Sourabh Sen: I believe that the National Solar Mission was a great first step and a major stride forward in driving sustainable development in the country.  But even more important than the announcement of the mission is the solid policy framework implemented to support it. Establishing the 2010 budget was a critical step. While the Solar Mission set the vision for solar in India, the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission’s tariff order laid out the details, and these guidelines further strengthened the case for investing in the Indian solar sector by setting preferential feed-in-tariffs and declaring long term (25 year) power purchase agreements. 

Thin Film Today: How do you view India's market potential for thin film?

Sourabh Sen: Like most markets, India’s goal is to aggressively drive down the cost of electricity generated through solar technologies to make it competitive with conventional energy sources - apart from any policy support. India’s cost targets may be even more ambitious than most markets due to low baseload cost of electricity and the high costs of capital.   

We see thin film technologies as one of the key possibilities to enable steep cost reductions.  This is even more pronounced in India where the cost of land is not as big a factor in project economics since the relatively lower efficiency of thin film can be accommodated. 

Finally, thin film’s performance in high temperature conditions gives it an edge all else being equal as developers are evaluating technology selection.  India’s Thar desert region covering Rajasthan and Gujarat is a key region for solar power and combines both high insulation with high temperatures.  We have already seen developers, including Astonfield, lean towards thin film solutions in these regions.

Thin Film Today: Is thin film solar likely to find success in India?

Sourabh Sen: Thin film should have good success in this market.  While India only has one domestic thin film manufacture with relatively small capacity, there seems to be good recognition by solar developers of the benefits of utilising thin film technology. 

As system costs decrease, it will be critical to continue seeing efficiency improvements in existing core thin film technologies to bring down the balance of system costs for items such as structures and cabling.  

Furthermore, there is tremendous innovation happening in countries such as the United States to develop new thin film processes or technologies with higher efficiency/lower cost technologies. India is a market for proven technology, but within four to five years we expect some of these new technologies to become more proven and “bankable”.

Thin Film Today: Where do you see the main challenges?

Sourabh Sen: Thin film, while considered a commercially proven solution, still only has a few large scale manufacturers globally. The supply chain needs to continue to mature and experience scale-up of a broader set of manufacturers, as we have experienced with crystalline technology in recent years. This scale is critical to begin to transition the supply chain to more of a focus on emerging economies and a more fragmented global market-base (as opposed to recent years with one to two countries dominating offtake of modules). 

In order for the sector to scale in a country like India, Indian banks will be critical to participate in the project financing of the solar projects.  We will need to help them build comfort with thin film technologies and educate them on the track record and success of the technology in established markets, such as Germany. 

It is our hope that as the Indian market shows execution of grid-connected solar projects in the coming one or two years, global manufacturers will find comfort in the market and move to invest in domestic manufacturing.  We will absolutely work with these global players to build this comfort, which can only come through confidence in the sustainability of the market.

Thin Film Today: In view of the challenges, do you think India can meet its renewable energy targets? Is thin film a viable vehicle in meeting India's renewable energy targets?

Sourabh Sen: Renewable energy is a critical component for India to build sustainable domestic energy security and to continue to deliver access to power across the country.  Within this, solar power will be an important part of the mix as India is blessed with significant solar resources. 

At the end of the day, those technologies that can drive down the cost of generating electricity most aggressively will be the long-term winners in what will become one of the world’s most important solar markets.  Thin film is one technology that has a chance to lead the pack, but significant R&D and commercial scale-up are required to move down the cost curve over the next four to five years.

About the interviewee and his co-founder Ameet Shah:

Sourabh Sen,  co-founded Astonfield Renewable Resources Ltd in 2005 with Ameet Shah. The company is based in India and has an office in New York. Mr Sen who is co-chair oversees government relations and drives the financial strategy at Astonfield, working with Astonfield’s technical and government partners to ensure project profitability. Under his leadership, Astonfield has built a solid track record in India in forming partnerships with leading international engineering, procurement and construction companies such as AREVA Renewables, Beck Energy and Veolia Environmental Services.

Mr. Shah is also the Managing Partner at Mosaic Capital Advisors and the Mosaic Private Equity family of funds. Prior to starting Mosaic Capital, a principal investment firm about 10 years ago, Mr. Shah worked with HSBC Asset Management Limited in various roles in Hong Kong, London and New York. He subsequently moved to Salomon Brothers in Hong Kong and joined the investment team that oversaw the Salomon Brothers Asia Growth Fund in 1997-1998. Mr. Shah serves on the Board of several emerging US companies—Avadhi Financial Technologies and Real Time Radiography; and he also serves as a Conflict Review Board Member for the Sigma Opportunity Fund in New York. Mr. Shah is an Economics graduate of Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge. Mr. Shah has mobilized investments of well over USD150m in the past 10 years in the United States and India.

In 2009 Mr Sen was awarded the Udyog Rattan Award from the Institute of Economic Studies for his pioneering contributions toward developing India’s renewable energy industry.