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‘With cost decline, solar is heaven-made match for India’

According to reports, US-based global solar major SunEdison is engaged in many activities in India — building and running solar power plants, selling solar-powered agricultural pumpsets, and installing solar electrification systems in remote villages.

Yet the company is best known for building a 1-MW solar power plant atop a water canal in Gujarat. The $2-billion company is incidentally also the largest foreign investor in the Indian solar space, and owns about 100 MW of solar power plants. The headquarters of its operations in the whole of Asia and Africa is in Chennai. And now, SunEdison’s President, CEO and Director, Ahmad Chatila, says the company will invest in manufacturing units in India. BusinessLine caught up with Chatila recently when he was here for a review of operations. Excerpts from the interview:

How would you review your experience in India and what are your plans for the future?

India is one of the largest markets in the world. If you look at China, five years ago the country had zero solar installations. This year, it will be 14 GW. India is as big a country with similar needs. India needs energy and solar costs are on the decline and because of that, it is a match made in heaven.

You said solar costs are on the decline. What do you see as the sources of this cost reduction?

It has come as the industry evolved. In the cost of financing, through new vehicles and structures, more efficient panels, lean manufacturing techniques and lower operations and maintenance costs. Today, the O&M costs in solar are higher than for wind when it should be lower. The solar industry is very nascent. We have a nice trajectory and that is why it is growing very fast globally.

You are a large polysilicon manufacturer and it is believed that polysilicon prices are set to decline. Would this make solar less expensive?

Polysilicon is a commodity, but it is not a big piece of the total cost of solar energy. Cost of solar energy depends upon the cost of equipment, cost of construction, of financing and O&M. Polysilicon accounts for five per cent of cost of equipment and construction, which means about 1.5 per cent of the total cost. It makes a lot of noise, but is not very important. In the energy business, polysilicon is not very fundamental by any means but since we have the most advanced technology in the world, we will use it.

How is your FBR technology (fluidised bed reactor) unique?

Our high pressure silane fluidised bed reactor is very advanced technology. In 2009, our old technology reactors used to produce 800 tonnes per reactor per year. Our most advanced reactors today produce 10,000 tonnes a year.

Under what conditions would you consider manufacturing in India?

I think there are a lot of great conditions in India. Many States have good policies. I am a believer in investing in India in manufacturing. If the Indian market does not evolve as I wish, I can export. Indian cost structures are very competitive.

What could you be manufacturing here?

It depends upon the timing. It could be modules, cells, wafers, anything. One has to think (about the) long-term. One has to be very strategic, (like making) chess moves. You have to figure out which one goes first, which next and if the market does not happen exactly as you want it, what you can export.

You are a long-term player. Can it be assumed that you are not overly concerned about the anti-dumping debate going on in the country?

Not much, really. I actually do not believe that trade barriers help industry in any country. I have been public about it. We are a global player, with a global supply chain. We will be doing a gigawatt (of installations) this year. For six months if we have to pay more for panels in India — big deal!

What is your vision for India?

I would like us to continue to be the leader. We do not see ourselves as a US company. We are more an Indian company that any other company. We will do more, invest more.

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