Aspiration Energy: Decentralized Solar Thermal Systems for Industrial Process Heating

Aspiration Energy is an innovative company poised for success with growing demand for renewable energy in India

Aspiration Energy Pvt. Ltd. is a solar energy services company located in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu that helps Indian manufacturers utilize solar energy for industrial process heating and enables Indian telecom providers to sustainably support telecom towers using solar panels. The company sets up decentralized rooftop solar panels for manufacturers and offers an innovative performance based monthly payment system. Founder and CEO, Bhoovarahan Thirumalai, an entrepreneur and graduate of the Kellogg School of Management, regularly speaks at national and international conferences on renewable energy. Thirumalai dreams of “harness(ing) the high level of (power system) isolation abundantly available in India to provide cost effective energy solutions.” [1] Along with a core team comprising Kanchana Rajagopalan (Head – Operations), Kasthuri Rangan (Head – Solar PV), and Manoharan K (Head – Solar Thermal), Thirumalai sets the strategic direction and runs the operations of this 1700 person ISO 9001:2008 certified company. [1]

Background and Significance:

Located in the sun soaked southern portion of India, a country that ranks among the top emitters of carbon dioxide and was ranked in 2013 by a study conducted by Yale University and Columbia University at 126 out of 132 countries based on environment performance [2], innovative private sector companies like Aspiration Energy have significant potential. Additionally, India officially submitted its instrument of ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement to the United Nations on October 16, 2016 (the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi) in a joint push with other nations to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and tackle the challenges of global warming and climate change. [3] The Government of India is reportedly planning a USD 200 billion spending push on the renewable energy sector with hopes to increase renewable energy capacity by a factor of approximately 3.7 by the year 2022 and plans to secure forty percent of total energy from solar and wind sources by 2030. [4] With growing global and governmental recognition of the need to address climate change, Aspiration Energy and the Indian private sector are on the cusp of significant business opportunities.

Company Response:

Manufacturing industries require sources of heat energy often at varying temperature levels for processes in their factory value chain. Aspiration Energy focuses on developing a renewable source of energy for the provision of low temperature (less than 120 degrees Celsius) industrial process heating requirements. The global demand for this is sizeable: low temperature industrial heat demand is thirty percent of the total industrial process heat demand and seven percent of global energy demand. [5]

The Company mounts solar heating panels known as Evacuated Tube Collectors [5] on factory rooftops that collect solar thermal heat radiation during the day. Relevant variables such as variation of solar radiation levels during the day, maximum load of industrial processes, load variation within manufacturing shifts and type/slope of factory roof tops are factored into the design calculations. Evacuated Tube Collectors were previously able to generate heat levels of up to 70 degrees Celsius; however, Aspiration Energy has been able to use technological innovations to increase this to more than 100 degrees Celsius, giving them the ability to cover the entire range of low temperature industrial process heat applications spanning a range of industries including paper, chemicals, machinery and equipment, rubber and plastic, textiles, automotive and auto ancillary, and food and beverages. [5],[6]

Fig 1: Industrial Applications Source: Industrial Solar Heating – Aspiration Energy. 2016. Industrial Solar Heating – Aspiration Energy. [ONLINE] Available at: http://aspirationenergy.com/industrial-solar-heating/. [Accessed 04 November 2016].
Fig 1: Industrial Applications
Source: Industrial Solar Heating – Aspiration Energy. 2016. Industrial Solar Heating – Aspiration Energy. [ONLINE] Available at: http://aspirationenergy.com/industrial-solar-heating/. [Accessed 04 November 2016].
An important feature of Aspiration Energy’s response to India’s need for renewable energy is their innovative payment and financing system. The Company offers its customers three options: 1. Pay Per Unit requiring monthly payments on a per unit of energy basis, 2. Pay As You Save (PAYS) based on estimated fuel savings, 3. Outright Purchase offering a customer the option to purchase the entire solar heating system [7]. The PAYS system is of particular benefit to smaller manufacturers in India that may not have the funds or willingness to invest in an outright purchase or lease.

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Fig 2: Range of services provided Source: Industrial Solar Heating – Aspiration Energy. 2016. Industrial Solar Heating – Aspiration Energy. [ONLINE] Available at: http://aspirationenergy.com/industrial-solar-heating/. [Accessed 04 November 2016].
Aspiration Energy was the recipient of several awards including “Most Innovative Energy Saving Product” by the Confederation of Indian Industry [8] and “Climate Solver 2013” by WWF-India [5]. Of particular interest is the fact that they have also received Government sponsored solar energy projects under the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) through Aspiration’s PAYS scheme [8].

Into the Future:

With growing need for renewable energy, increasing participation in this sector by other Indian and international private sector companies is to be expected. Being a relatively early mover in this space, Aspiration should focus on expansion in its target markets to develop a strong client base as larger competitors enter. They should also develop an effective medium term plan to fund growth and research into technological advancement. A very effective strategy would be to leverage their work with MNRE to position them as the Government’s trusted partner in fulfilling its international climate obligations.

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2 thoughts on “Aspiration Energy: Decentralized Solar Thermal Systems for Industrial Process Heating

  1. Solar in India is certainly the buzz when it comes to renewable energy in emerging markets. India’s tremendous solar resource, its significant energy deficit, and long-haul transmission issues definitely plays into the strengths of rooftop solar power which can be consumed at the point of generation (aka distributed power).

    One key risk I see in this business is equipment cost. Given they play exclusively in the rooftop space, their projects will not be of sufficient scale to attract significant vendor discounts. Hence, they are in significant risk of being priced out of the market if other utility-scale developers expand into the rooftop arena (which is already happening with Azure Power, the largest Indian IPP, for example).

    Further, their operations are focused on Tamil Nadu – the state with the most solar in India – and hence could be at risk of a regulatory environment that becomes less friendly to the sector as it matures.

    Overall, I see Aspiration as a small fish in a relatively small pond that is growing, and their ability to survive will very much depend on whether they can get big before the pond stops growing.

  2. Great post! Thanks a lot for sharing. Before reading your post I had no idea about the level of environmental discourse in India, nor how companies like Aspiration Energy were tackling the problem.

    For context, having looked at the impact of the environment in China and other emerging markets, I was interested to look at the different ways Indian companies are responding to climate change. In particular, this was an article I’d read last year which helped place the dialogue in context; I’d love to know your thoughts on it: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/1886272/new-divide-china-and-india-diverge-approaches-climate-change

    A few other questions/reflections:
    How reliant is the Company on government support? You mention that Aspiration Energy was the recipient of several awards and that they have also received Government sponsored solar energy projects under the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE): do their relations with the government need to remain cordial for this to continue? Is there a degree of political risk we need to factor into the effectiveness of their continued operations? (This is the case in China for example). In addition to this: you discuss the need for Aspiration to focus on expansion in its target markets, and leverage their work with MNRE to position them as the Government’s trusted partner in fulfilling its international climate obligations – who are their main rivals here? I’d love to understand the competitive landscape more fully.

    I was very interested to learn about some of their specific technology, for e.g. the Evacuated Tube Collectors that are placed on factory rooftops to collect solar thermal heat radiation: are these thus very dependent on weather? You mention that Aspiration Energy has been able to use technological innovations to cover an entire range of temperatures needed for different industrial processes. What are the risks to the continued effectiveness and flexibility of these operations?

    Lastly you mention that Aspiration should focus on expansion in its target markets: are these domestic only, or international too? How easy would it be for them to export their business overseas?

    Thanks again for an interesting post!

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