Companies

Solar major SunEdison back in India in multiple new avatars

M. Ramesh | | | Updated on: Dec 18, 2021
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The firm is headed by the original SunEdison’s India chief, Pashupathy Gopalan

During its halcyon days, SunEdison had a large footprint in India with nearly 2 GW of solar assets either in operation or under construction.

In 2016, the US-headquartered solar energy multinational went bankrupt, which is said to be because of debts taken for aggressive acquisitions coupled with an internal financial muck-up. But the man who founded the company and ran it successfully for many years, Ahmad Chatila, lost no time in getting back on his feet. He put together an investment vehicle, Fenice Investment Group (FIG), which has started a series of businesses.

Most of FIG’s investees are present in India, a country that Chatila calls his second home.

SunEdison itself is back, in the same name, as a distributed energy developer, headed by the original SunEdison’s India chief, Pashupathy Gopalan.

Another FIG company, Ohmium, a US-headquartered company whose only manufacturing plant is in India, made headlines recently by shipping a hydrogen electrolyser back to the US. NexGen Power Systems makes semiconductors with Gallium nitride instead of silicon, a pathbreaking evolution in semiconductor technology. Arka Solar is also into rooftop solar. FTC Solar, a tracker manufacturer, which went public in the US recently, has half its workforce in India.

FIG investee companies now have about 500-600 people working for them in India; this number will grow to 2,000-3,000 in three years, Chatila told BusinessLine in an exclusive interview recently.

Chatila’s personal turnaround began in the form of his friends — former colleagues. Reminiscing the days after SunEdison going belly-up, Chatila said: “I made some strategic mistakes, I own responsibility for them. I had no money, I lost all my wealth and had to take a loan on my house to pay my bills. I know the pain of failure and it is not just money.”

Just when he was wondering what to do next, he was approached by TJ Rodgers, the founder of Cypress Semiconductors, which had also failed at that point in time. Rodgers invited Chatila to help turnaround a solar inverter company he had started, called Enphase, which was tottering on the verge of bankruptcy. Despite having misgivings over the business, Chatila joined the company. In three years, Enphase’s market capitalisation rose from $50 million to $30 billion, and became the most valuable solar company in the US.

Even as this was happening, Chatila started the Fenice Investment Group — an investment company with no money to invest, but with the confidence that as he evolved, he would find funds to invest. In time, Chatila and Rodgers put the money they made in Enphase into FIG, which started a bouquet of businesses.

Thumbs up for India

He makes a strong pitch for dollar-denominated solar tariffs, which he says would attract funds from abroad, especially from the developed rich (G-7 countries). (If the currency fluctuation risk is removed, the returns would not be chipped away by any depreciation of the rupee.) “You are anyway buying oil in dollars,” he notes, pointing out that India’s oil bill would rise from $160 billion now to $250 billion by 2035. “When you import anything, you are reducing the GDP of your country,” he says. Dollar-denominated tariff would effectively mean that “you are paying yourself the dollars”.

Developed countries would have no option but to invest in India in green sectors, because otherwise, global emissions cannot be tamed. Dollar-denominated tariffs would galvanise FDI flows into India.

Chatila also recommends that the government fix interim targets for hydrogen, renewable energy, again to provide visibility to foreign investors. He feels that hydrogen is India’s chance to be what the US is today, in energy. His company, Ohmium, is well-positioned to seize the emerging business opportunities, he says.

Published on December 18, 2021

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