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Electrical engineers or energy professionals are a sad lot today. Besides the smart grid, which is still really in its nascent stage, they have precious little to show as ground-breaking contributions to humanity in recent years. Barring improvements in automation technologies and the compact design of products, the energy and utility industry has been slow in deploying innovative technologies.
In contrast, the world of computing and communications technologies has stolen much of the limelight in the last century. PCs, the Internet, smartphones, AI et al have primarily dominated the short list of significant new inventions in the last 40 to 50 years. And at the heart of it are some rather familiar names: Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. Unfortunately, no GE, Siemens, ABB or Shell, Schlumberger and ExxonMobil. After al, it was the power and utilities industry that caused a paradigm-shifting disruption towards the end of the 19th century, when it gifted the world a huge productivity boost in the second industrial revolution (primarily due to Edison’s invention of electricity).
The industry seems to have taken a backseat partly because of its very utilitarian nature — it mostly serves the complex industrial/commercial (B2B) market, often distant from the sight and grasp of end consumers. Energy or power products in their mundane forms are not cherished or consumed with relish like other gratifying personal computing gadgets and devices. After all, a transformer may hum and occasionally flash, but it fails to draw our attention like a blue-ray music system; solar panels aid better living but fall short of Robots in the glamour quotient; and EVs (Electric Vehicles), though charming, are perceived more as a disruption to the automotive sector than the electrical utility industry. And then there has been all that brain-drain in the direction of the computer software and hardware industries.
At a more macro level, the industry’s lacklustre show is also a result of the status quo stance policymakers have held for long. It is only in recent times that the clean energy push is proving to be simultaneously transformative and disruptive. Historically, however, clean energy initiatives have been a case of short-term opportunism against continually changing goalposts. It was only in the early ‘90s, when the “Earth Summit” produced the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), that the world got serious about actually solving the ‘climate change’ problem. Before that, clean energy meant as ‘little’ as addressing local air pollution (not to be confused with climate change), or improving trade imbalances by reducing oil import or indulging in efforts to improve public relations by the corporates.
However, as the world chokes, nauseates and heats up, the industry is being seen as a catalytic agent — more so, as we shift our focus on laying out a set of modified yardsticks, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), to measure economic efficiency and effectiveness. As we start answering the perennial question ‘Kitna deti hai’ in more long-term-oriented (‘The EV mileage or Kilometres per Single Charge’) specifications; as we move away from an uncaring ‘Per capita KWhr’ consumption as a prosperity indicator to the more meaningful ‘Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI)’; and as along with unidimensional ‘Total Installed Capacity’, another metric, ‘Energy Mix’, gains importance, the energy sector is seen through different lenses and principally as a potential rescuer of mankind at the fag-end of a long and forgettable history lost in the dark soot-filled earth’s environment.
What is causing this change and how? Are there parallels and crossovers in such transformations to what the world of computing and associated technologies have witnessed? There seem to be quite a few commonalities and intersections.
Moore’s law for clean tech
Many of the enviable disruptions that yielded the PC revolution and today’s super-fast computing technology are attributable to the availability of fast, cheap and small microchips to form the brain of modern computers/devices. This phenomenon of achieving exponential growth in computing efficiency is explained by what is known as Moore’s Law.
The law has held valid for a time much longer than was initially thought. It is, however, losing steam with signs of accumulated pieces of evidence, but quite interestingly, another law is being conceptualised for a parallel world of technology: clean tech.
It is the exponential growth part of the Moore’s Law that has motivated the experts to coin a new “carbon law”, modelled on Moore’s law in computing , as a proposed roadmap for beating climate change post the 2015 Paris Climate Change Convention. The law envisages carbon emissions halving every decade, while green energy continues to double every five years. The carbon law’s advocates are senior climate-change scientists, and they contend that it provides a simple, broad but quantitative plan that could drive stakeholders to make urgently needed carbon cuts.
On a different dimension, researchers have watched similar dynamics of Moore’s law working in solar power technology as well. The steady decline of solar energy costs for a unit KWhr gave rise to the exponential growth of solar PV cells all around the world. That is, in a way, a solar technology equivalent of Moore’s Law — amazingly cheap, mass distributed energy technology that’s way more effective than the enormous and centralised systems it was created from.
A new leader and radical disruptions
There are more parallels in the revolution of clean tech. If the tech companies dominated the last few decades, much of such a tech uprising had to do with way visionary leaders like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs reshaped customer behaviours. For the most part, other industries were not as blessed to have such leaders before Elon Musk appeared to fill the vacuum. Today a swathe of engineering professionals and young entrepreneurs look up to Musk the way they revered Steve Jobs. Musk is hero-worshipped, adulated and shadowed for as much of his apparent Jobs-like style of unveiling new products as his brand Tesla’s modus operandi of accepting challenges and sweeping the world off its feet with an array of disruptive products. Tesla is far from being only a car company. It's an aggregation of multi-disciplinary themes, a strong vision and a realistic business model (yet to be proved) set to transform a combination of large markets. Gene Munster has analysed why the Tesla brand of today is much like the Apple of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In the 2011 feature documentary film by Chris Paine, “Revenge of the Electric Car”, Bob Lutz, former Vice Chairman of General Motors (GM) expressed gratitude to Tesla mentioning how a California based start-up was changing the thinking pattern of a behemoth like GM’s in its approach to EVs. No wonder, modern civilisation is seeking refuge in an Edison or a ‘Tesla’ of a different kind.
Even the recent surge in clean energy initiatives (in the aftermath of 2015 convention) came to be after a plethora of decision dilemmas and late-awakening of nations. In the Paris convention, India was not only a day late to submit its plan but also the last of 140 countries to do so. If, in India, it has mostly been economic growth first and then everything else, including environmental concerns, it is somewhat understandable, what with 300 million people living without electricity and the country’s vast resources of coal.
But since then, the Modi government’s pledge to go big on renewable energy (175 GW by 2022 and only EVs on the road by 2030 ) has created a different wave. If we implement appropriately, the government’s renewable energy thrust could do more than just help the climate change cause. It might help pull millions out of poverty, especially in rural communities by providing stable earnings, healthcare benefits, and skill-building opportunities to unskilled and semi-skilled workers. That the industry is at a tipping point also gives a unique opportunity to the skilled and creamy layer of the Indian workforce — not only for the electrical engineers; because of the substantially vertically integrated business models and deep cross-functional involvement, the energy and utility sector are as much for the research fellows, an array of engineers, geological surveyors and mining experts as it is for the entrepreneurs and manufacturers of new tech. All in all, we need a battalion of ‘green personnel’ to cool off and unchoke the nation before it dies an untimely death.
When I started my career in a leading power utility company, the organisation tried to instil a sense of ‘nation-building’ in us, for it understood that it could not compete with money and cushy comfort the IT and related industries offer to its employees and must sow the seed of pride instead to compensate for missed material benefits. The hard hats, fluorescent robes, sturdy gumboots and UV protective goggles though did a world of good for the embodiment of, ‘A nation builder at work’, albeit failed to retain a substantial chunk of freshly recruited employees.
In India, IT has attracted much of best talents in the initial days of this millennium. No doubt, IT industries have contributed significantly to India’s GDP, but partly at the expense of the national workforce. While it has enabled job- and wealth-creation, it has also sucked a vast pool of human resources into itself regardless of their interest and background. A broad swathe of core engineers, art, science and business graduates could not help but respond to a whirling market-force and complicit ecosystem by lapping up designations of systems engineer, developer, data entry operator et al. However, with the push for renewable energy or clean tech (new investment in clean energy worldwide is pegged at approximately $300-400 billion every year), this may well effect a core sector revolution — many of them may no longer have to spend endless befuddled hours attempting to decode the meaning of their professional lives. This may sound biased, but it’s mostly the electrical engineer me taking control over the consultant me.
At the intersection of ‘Make in India’, push for clean tech and moderate IT sector growth lies an enormous and explosive amount of motivation — which let us hope is sufficient — to catapult many to explore new avenues assuming job roles equalling ‘Life Saviours’ or ‘Nation Builders’ tags.