When Sujay Malve was a student in India 20 years ago, power outages were a common occurrence. They would happen in the summer in the heat of exam preparations, and would also disrupt operations at the tower crane factory where his father worked.
Malve wanted to play a role in solving the problem of energy access and security.
He studied mechanical engineering at university in India and did his master’s in industrial engineering in the United States before venturing into the energy industry. He took on roles in programme management, consulting and strategy and business development at various companies—and completed his MBA—before striking out and co-founding microgrid and engineering services firm Canopy Power in 2016.
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As with all start-ups, it was tough until the company secured its first contract, a project to install a microgrid at Misool diving resort and conservation centre in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. The lead came through a battery supplier and Canopy Power completed installation of a photovoltaic-storage hybrid system at Misool in 2018, allowing renewable energy to meet 55 per cent of the resort’s needs.
“And then it went from there,” said Malve, Canopy Power’s chief executive. “We got one in Myanmar, followed by three projects in Indonesia.”
The Singapore-based company has since installed microgrids at eco resorts around Southeast Asia, allowing clients to rely on clean energy for 30 to 85 per cent of their electricity needs instead of being fully reliant on diesel. It is now seeing potential customers from diverse industries including plantations, utilities and fisheries.
A few months ago, Malve’s team also began a corporate social responsibility project under the brand name Canopy Care.
Through its client Telunas Resorts, his team came to know of a village called Tanjung Sesup on Indonesia’s Sugi island. They found that villagers had to walk a distance to collect water from a well, and decided to design a water distribution system that would bring supply closer to the village’s 50 or so households. Construction is almost done and Malve said he would be looking to raise more funds, going forward, to help the village power the system using solar energy.
The market for microgrids is huge. Just look at the off-grid sites that are present in Southeast Asia, because there are so many islands.
In this interview, Malve talks about his career, the role of microgrids in boosting energy access and security in Southeast Asia, and how his team is making the most of travel restrictions wrought by Covid-19.
How did you start out in the renewable energy industry?
My first job was in heavy manufacturing in the United States. We made gears and gear boxes. The customers were oil and gas companies and some green energy-related ones.
My second job, in Chicago, was for a company which made components for wind turbines. I was quite young—25, 26—and they gave me a very good managerial position. I also thought it would be really cool to work directly in the industry.
I did not get into oil and gas because I had that feeling that I wanted to build my career in renewables.
What did you learn about the wind energy industry?
It was amazing to see the market demand for wind energy. And it was also amazing to see, at that time (around 2007), how much that industry was dependent on government regulation, on tax credits. That’s what we’re given in the US—investment tax credits (to incentivise the development and deployment of renewable energy technologies).
When the tax credits expire, the industry will go down and then it comes back up. It was very seasonal, and the reason was the cost was still high at the time. But those (incentives) were driving innovation. You also want to grow demand from the customer to reduce the cost, and you’ve got to be very innovative to make that happen.
Over time, obviously, things have changed and the costs have gone down. During the three to four years when I was in that industry, I played a small role in making that happen.
What did you do next?
I did my MBA in entrepreneurship, finance and marketing while I was working, a part-time programme because I didn’t want to get out of the industry for two years; it was changing so fast. After my MBA, there are a couple of things I wanted—to be closer to home, and to get experience in Asia and the markets there. So I decided to get into management consulting and moved to Dubai. I worked in the energy practice at Booz and Company [now known as Strategy&].
And it was very interesting because the majority of projects were oil and gas. But I realised that even though you may be 100 per cent supportive of renewable energy, it is important to learn about oil and gas too.
Today, Canopy Power has customers that are large oil and gas companies. I feel that because I’ve had experience with them, it helps me to convince them when it comes to renewable solutions.
After management consulting, you joined the solar energy industry?
I joined REC Group in 2012 and was in Dubai for the first six months to open their office in the Middle East before moving to Singapore.
I was with REC for about four years. REC is one of the very few non-Chinese companies that’s been in the industry for more than two decades and is making money, so that tells you something about them. They have this culture of continuous improvement, and it was amazing to learn it first-hand.
Working in business development, I saw a niche in renewable energy microgrids in Southeast Asia. At the time, REC’s strategic focus was not to invest in downstream activities but focus on its core strength, which was the manufacturing of solar panels.
So I thought, maybe this would be a good time for me to start a company.
I think Covid-19 is highlighting the energy security problem for many of our customers.
Canopy Power has installed microgrids for eco resorts in Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia. What’s next?
In the pipeline are projects in the Maldives and the Philippines, and we’re talking to potential customers in Fiji.
Once travel restrictions are lifted, we will commence a project for island electrification in Cambodia. It’s a centralised microgrid that will provide electricity to residents and businesses. This is the first project of this kind for us, where there’s not one single off-taker, but multiple off-takers.
How will microgrids improve energy access and security for the region?
The market for microgrids is huge. Just look at the off-grid sites that are present in Southeast Asia, because there are so many islands (that may not get large-scale grid electricity).
Dependence on diesel automatically gives rise to an energy security problem. The prices go up and down, and supply becomes an issue.
Microgrids are becoming mainstream. They guarantee cleaner, cheaper and reliable electricity. There is funding available today—we are providing financing to eligible customers that entails zero down payment; they can pay over time—and there’s technology which ensures that the uptime (of the microgrids) is always kept as high as possible.
Using our proprietary Hornbill technology, we can monitor and manage the systems remotely. If something goes wrong, 80 per cent of problems are solved remotely without sending anybody, and they’re resolved in minutes or hours, not days. We’re using the data collected to optimise load management and maintain the system predictively.
What are mistakes that you’ve learnt from?
For one of our projects in Indonesia, our equipment was stuck in customs for a few months. We learned that we have to have very good logistics partners in every market.
Any advice for young people who want to join the industry?
We generally hire people who’ve just graduated. For some, this is their first job or second job. What we look for is potential. We’re not looking for people with solar or microgrid experience; we can teach people.
Being in a start-up is not easy. We look for people who have inherent ability, who’re risk takers, also people with some clarity (who believe they) want to work in a company that’s addressing climate change. This creates a common goal. The rest of the stuff, we can build on.
How has Covid-19 affected your work, and the industry?
We have projects ongoing in Malaysia and Cambodia. They’re on hold (due to travel restrictions). But we’re using this time to do the things that’re difficult to do in normal times.
For example, our team has built several software tools to make design or creating proposal work easy. We brought a couple of engineers into business development to help. It’s not only a new experience for them, but it’s also helping the business development team to build a process list for proposals.
We’ve also made some strategic decisions by doing extra analysis of certain markets.
I think Covid-19 is highlighting the energy security problem for many of our customers. Some are not getting diesel (due to movement restrictions). Some are grateful for the microgrid, solar and battery, and they’re saying, “Luckily I’m not (having to) pay anything for diesel.” Some of them are already talking to us about expanding their current system or building another system at another resort in future.
In the wake of Covid-19, business is going to be slow initially because some customers’ industries were shut down temporarily. For example, resorts are closed today. I think 10 or 20 months down the line, the demand for renewable energy solutions is set to grow and be higher than in 2019.