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Power Shift

An Interview with James Abraham

December 15, 2016

India is home to some of the world’s most-polluted cities. In places like New Delhi and Mumbai, dangerously high levels of dust, soot, and smoke choke the air as the country’s enormous demand for energy continues to rise along with pressure to build more coal plants.

It would take one heck of an optimist to see any ray of light through India’s “brown cloud.” James Abraham is just such an optimist. He predicts brighter, healthier days ahead—and he’s betting that they will be powered, in part, by renewable energy.

James (New Delhi, Toronto, 1994-2009) is cofounder of SolarArise, which builds and operates solar power plants in India.

“I want to see the day where solar and renewables are so inexpensive and ubiquitous that we never have to build another fossil fuel plant in this country. I want to see clean air in India—and to get it without sacrificing growth. Further, I want help India become the first nation in the world to develop its economy without further damaging the environment.” 

We last visited with James in 2012. Back then, he was CEO of SunBorne, a technology company he founded to design and build solar plants and, ultimately, to drive down energy costs. He had led SunBorne as a test case of sorts to explore whether solar was “feasible and doable” in India.

Fast-forward four years and we have the answer: very much so. Since James has moved on, SunBorne has become a successful technology and engineering company.

In 2014, James—together with fellow BCG alum, Tanya Singhal—founded SolarArise to tackle clean energy from a different angle. “Generally, once you build an operating renewable solar plant, it becomes a cash-generating business. This time around, we’re here not just to prove that we can build this type of power plant, but that we can then continue to own it, operate it, generate a profit, and return money to our investors.”

It’s all part of a long-term game plan James refers to as his “North Star vision.”

TANYA SINGHAL

“When I left BCG to start SunBorne, I was careful not to bring any BCGers along. Why? It was a roll of the dice; a crap shoot. I did not want anybody—particularly somebody like Tanya, at the early stage of her career—to commit to such a big risk.

But Tanya was persistent. She never lost touch and kept up her intent to leave BCG and join us.  A few years later, she decided she had grown and learned a lot and was ready to take the risk. She joined us at SunBorne to lead strategic partnerships.

It was a fantastic move for all of us. She has the BCG ethos to take complete ownership and care for the outcome, sometimes more than we do ourselves. I found she was the one person I could turn to when I had to ask, ‘What, conceptually, is the second-order effect of the decisions we’re making?’

Tanya stuck with us through what were our most difficult years and stayed on to help construct this new business. I could not imagine a better partner. She’s now one of the youngest female senior leaders in infrastructure in India, and her story has just begun.”

He explains that when he set out to create SunBorne, there were certain “goal posts” he wanted to reach. The first of those was to prove that renewable energy could be delivered at, or lower than, the price of coal. He wanted to touch that goal post by 2017; the universe conspired to help reach it in 2016. “It was exciting to prove that over a 20-year period the cost of energy from solar will be cheaper than from coal—even more exciting to think that in coming years those margins will continue to widen.

Indeed, in the four years since we last spoke with James, India’s solar power landscape has changed dramatically. The size of solar plants has grown significantly, and at speed. By April 2016, the country was producing around seven gigawatts of solar power, having taken around ten years to get to that point. Compare that to the 12 months from April 2016 to April 2017, during which it is projected to add another eight gigawatts—more than double what it had built in the previous 20 years.

“Development in this sector has become mainstream across India. It’s very exciting,” James explains.

A glance at the broader picture is even more revealing. Around the time James founded SunBorne, India’s government announced plans to build 20 gigawatts capability, nationally, by 2022—a target dismissed by many at the time as being unrealistic, if not impossible. A change of government in 2014 saw that target revised upward to a whopping 100 gigawatts. A target, says James, that is today within “touching distance.”

So, is solar India’s silver bullet?

James does not let his optimism cloud the facts. He is candid when he explains that solar is often misconceived as being 100% clean. Much of the technology used building the solar panels and batteries required to generate solar energy use chemical processes and a great deal of water.

“It would, of course, be senseless to replace one dirty power source with another. I would argue, however, that because of solar’s lifetime potential—25 to 40 years—to generate clean power, in the long run it is much, much cleaner. Any environmental negatives in building a solar plant are well paid out over the lifespan of that plant.”

Further, he says, it will take around just 10%of India’s non-arable desert landmass to replace every fossil fuel plant in the country for the next 30 years.

As part of his inspiration for his work—at both SunBorne and SolarArise—James has turned regularly to a favorite quote by BCG founder, Bruce Henderson: “We dedicate ourselves to supporting those gifted few who hold within their hands the ability to make this world a far better place in which to live.” 

He remembers that he was given exactly such support in his own time at BCG. “In turn, I felt obliged to go out into the world and prove Bruce right. A lot of what we do at SolarArise, why we do it and how we do it, is informed by that quote. We’re bringing together young, talented people to help them make India a better place.”

“It all ties back to that North Star vision. In retrospect, joining BCG was, perhaps subconsciously, part of that vision. Everything about BCG—the way it works, hires people, promotes people, helps its alumni—has reinforced my beliefs about positive long-term change. I was already wired that way, but that ethos was reinforced in the sense that BCG itself is also, effectively, wired that way.”

Today, James says, his North Star vision remains strong.

“When we started, people dismissed the idea that we could get to a point where solar could challenge the coal industry. But we continue to reach our goal posts. It’s thrilling to know that today we are able to produce cleaner energy and that solar is playing a part in helping India breathe a little easier.”

Power Shift
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