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'Transition generation' will lead India towards global energy leadership, says Mukesh Ambani

"India will lead the transition from fossil fuels to green and clean energy and become a major resource of solar and hydrogen energy in the coming decades"

February 23, 2022 / 02:31 PM IST

At the Asia Economic Dialogue, Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director of India’s largest private sector organisation Reliance Industries, underscored India's emerging role in green energy, which one day will lead to an earth-friendly industrial revolution. India is poised for global leadership, he said, as the world's centre of gravity has clearly shifted to Asia.

Edited excerpts of a fireside chat on ‘Green Energy for our Sustainable Future’ with Dr R A Mashelkar, president, Pune International Centre: 

Before we begin our discussion on ‘Green Energy for Sustainable Future’, may I ask you about your thoughts on Asia’s future and the place of India in it in particular?

Well, Dr Mashelkar, it is becoming more obvious with each passing year that the 21st century will be Asia’s Century. The centre of gravity of the global economy has clearly shifted to Asia.

From the 1st to the 18th century, Asia was leading the world in global GDP. After suffering a retreat in the last two centuries, Asia is now making a strong comeback.

In 2020, Asia’s GDP as we all know overtook the GDP of the rest of the world combined. By 2030, the Asian region is expected to contribute roughly 60% of global growth.

We should remember here that Asia accounts for 60% of the world’s population. More Asians will join the middle class in the next two decades than the combined population of all other continents.

Which means, Asia is leading the march towards a more inclusive global economy. The mismatch between DEMOGRAPHY and DEVELOPMENT is closing.

All this goes to show that a RESURGENT ASIA will contribute to a MORE EQUAL WORLD. This is a most welcome trend.

This trend is also reinforced by the fact that India is likely to overtake Japan as Asia’s second-largest economy, and the world’s third largest economy, by 2030. Dr Mashelkar, I am very confident that the India Growth Story will be as exciting, if not more exciting, than China’s in the decades to come.

It is India’s Time!

Let me now turn to our theme, which is green energy for our sustainable world. Let me begin by asking you: Why green energy? Or in your words why new energy?

 Well, to my mind, the answer is very simple and well known. All of us as humanity have only one planet. THERE IS NO PLANET B.

The only planet in the entire universe which is home to human life and to countless other living species is Planet Earth. And Planet Earth is facing an existential crisis because of Climate Change.

The Climate Crisis is essentially Energy Crisis. The excessive use of fossil fuels in the past two hundred years has gravely endangered the fragile ecology of the planet.

Of course, it has brought prosperity to a large part of the global community. But this prosperity has been at the cost of the planet’s environment and ecosystem….and is therefore unsustainable.

Climate Change is the biggest threat today to mankind’s future wellbeing. It is an even graver threat to plant and animal species, which are indeed our “PLANETARY RELATIVES”.

After all, humans, animals and trees are not adversaries competing for space on this planet. They are linked by countless forms of co-operation and symbiosis.

As a lover of wildlife and nature myself, and as someone who likes to spend time in nature parks and wildlife sanctuaries, I can tell you that we have a responsibility to conserve all these precious gifts of Mother Nature and pass them on to our future generations.

Therefore, the transition from Old Energy to New, Green and Clean Energy is not an option; it is an urgent imperative. Our very survival depends on how quickly we embrace planet-friendly renewables like solar, wind and hydrogen.

One more thing: Energy Transition will also determine Geopolitical Transition in the 21st century. As you know Mr Mashelkar, when wood was replaced with coal, Europe overtook India and China to emerge the world leader.

Similarly, with the emergence of oil, the US and West Asia outgrew others. When India becomes not only self-sufficient in Green and Clean Energy, but also a large exporter, it will help India emerge as a global power.

India will demonstrate that prosperity for all people and prosperity for our planet are not mutually contradictory goals. This transition will have other benefits as well, such as a huge number of GREEN JOBS.

It will also mean massive foreign exchange savings, since Energy and Electronics are today India’s biggest import bills. Finally, Green and Clean Energy ensures better health and better quality of life for everyone on the planet.

Therefore, I believe that the transition to NEW ENERGY will indeed lead to a new EARTH-FRIENDLY INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION.

That’s very interesting – EARTH-FRIENDLY INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION. I have heard about Industrial Revolutions that moved from Industry 1.0 to 2.0, to 3.0 to 4.0, but not EARTH-FRIENDLY INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION. It sounds very, very interesting. Can you please explain this grand vision of yours?

So, Dr Mashelkar, if we see the trajectory of the first three Industrial Revolutions, we find that they basically disrupted the harmony between human beings and nature.

The economic growth in the past few centuries was premised on the principle of control and exploitation of nature and natural resources or earth’s resources. In contrast, the transition to GREEN AND CLEAN ENERGY represents a disruption of a reverse kind.

I think we are now beginning to learn from MOTHER NATURE. Our new energy technologies are mimicking Mother Nature insofar as they convert sunshine and hydrogen in water into energy.

Mother Nature has also created a virtuous Carbon Cycle, in which carbon is not a liability but an asset. In course of time, Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) technologies will attain scale and help reduce the carbon load in the atmosphere.

There is another way in which NEW ENERGY represents an Earth-Friendly Industrial Revolution. In the era of fossil fuels, industrial activities are highly centralised.

This is because coal and oil are centralised in their origin and have to be transported to large distances. In contrast, in the coming era of ABUNDANT and AFFORDABLE CLEAN AND GREEN ENERGY, with utility-scale battery storage, it is possible to envision that every house, every farm, factory and habitat could, in principle, could free itself from the grid by generating its own power.

The world is also developing technologies that use less land to produce all the more we need. You always say that “more from less”, and that is what is happening at a world scale all around us.  

Which means, we can earmark more land for forests, which also acts as natural carbon sequesters. This is what I mean by the need to transition from INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION to ECOLOGICAL REVOLUTION or EARTH-FRIENDLY INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION.

This vision of an Earth-friendly Industrial Revolution has prompted Reliance to adopt CARE FOR THE PLANET, along with CARE FOR THE PEOPLE, as the guiding principle of everything we do in all our businesses and philanthropic activities.

You have often talked about the 3Ds, namely Digitalization, Decentralisation and Decarbonisation. And Reliance has been of course deeply involved in all three Ds. But you also always talked about your dream of India that is not a follower, but a leader. India as a leader. Can India emerge as a global New Energy leader?

I have absolutely no doubt that India can, and India will emerge as a global New Energy leader. Just see yesterday, we were amongst the first in the world where our Renewable Energy Minister announced Hydrogen pumps.

While the world is still grappling with this, we have put our vision of exporting Green Energy out of India on the table. So, we are early, I believe that our Prime Minister believes in ensuring that this next generation of Indians will not only be self-sufficient and Atmanirbhar in our energy, but India can export Green Energy.

And my optimism and confidence really stems from three reasons. 

First: India is a country full of entrepreneurial spirit, innovation and youth.

Second: We now have proactive and forward-looking policy support and action from the government, both at the central and the state level.

Third:  Our entrepreneurs now have assured financing options.

Let me elaborate Dr Mashelkar, I have immense faith in the ability of our young entrepreneurs. They are highly ambitious and highly talented, and I’m fortunate to see a lot of them in action all-around.

I foresee at least 20-30 new Indian companies in the energy and tech space which will grow as big as Reliance, if not bigger, in the next 10-20 years.

Let me put this in perspective for our audience. It took Reliance about 15 years to become a $ 1 billion company. 30 years to become a $ 10 billion company. 35 years to become a $ 100 billion company. And 38 years to touch $ 200 billion company.

I have no doubt that the next generation of Indian entrepreneurs will achieve this in half the time. What this also means is that India’s community of entrepreneurs will become broader and wealth creation will also become more inclusive.

This will make India a more Equal Nation. Let me make another prediction.

India’s Technology and Digital exports have risen to $150 bn from less than $10 billion 20 years ago. By 2030, I believe they will exceed half a trillion dollars.

Similarly, India’s Clean and Green Energy exports in the next 20 years at the end of 20 years also has the potential of half a trillion dollars of export.

In the last 20 years, we were known for India’s emergence as an IT superpower; next 20 years, I believe, along with technology, will mark our emergence as a superpower in ENERGY and LIFE SCIENCES.

What is commendable is that the New Energy businesses in India are standing on their own two feet, with their own entrepreneurship, and very little support of or basis of any great government subsidies.

Technological progress will make energy affordable on the basis of commercial viability; and it will be technology, and the entrepreneurial spirit, and the new business model that gives values to customer that will drive the business and not government subsidies. And that’s encouraging about the new energy opportunities that I see.

There is always a concern that technology must be backed up by policy, investments. Do you foresee any hurdles there? 

Well, let me share with you my perspective. India is today one of the most attractive opportunities for renewable energy investments anywhere in the world.

As far as policy is concerned, at least I believe that the Government of India is extremely committed to promoting New Energy.

And among all countries in the world, we have been proactive, unlike the past, and I believe that we are the leading edge of policy development, and all of these policies are transparent and pro-consumer.

And the commitment begins at the highest level — from our Honourable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi himself, right from the days of Gujarat, as you know. Like he is a big proponent of Renewable and Clean Energy.

The government is proactive in meeting the financing needs of New Energy sector. The recent announcement in Union Budget about the launch of Sovereign Green Bonds is a step in that direction.

India achieved its target of 40% power generation of renewables of the target that was set for 2030, in 2021 itself. And I believe that we will be ahead of this target.

India aims to achieve 500 GW of renewable power capacity, which I am sure we will meet. So, right now on the basis of what I see, I am very optimistic.

What are the other factors that will favour India’s transition to New Energy with speed and scale? Because time is of essence and impacting the largest number of people is a big challenge. So, what are those factors for fast transition?

So, Mr Mashelkar, you and I both believe that India’s progress is unstoppable. We will become a 5-trillion-dollar economy, and we will become 10-trillion-dollar-economy. We can only argue about whether it happens in 2025 or 2027 or whether in 2030 or 2032. So when that happens, the quality of life of every Indians has to improve. Today, our per capita energy consumption is one-third of the world.

I think for the quality of life of all Indians, India’s own domestic demand for Energy will be enormous.

Indians are already known for having one of the  most eco-friendly and sustainable lifestyles. An average Indian’s annual carbon emissions is about one-fifth that of an average Chinese or one-eighth of an average American.  So, even if it increases, we will be able to handle it.

In fact, an average Indian’s carbon emissions are less than half of the world average. Indians won’t have to make too many lifestyle changes to become carbon neutral.

India’s per capita income today is around $2,000, compared to Europe’s $38,000. I believe that with our progress, we will reach $10,000 per capita in the next 15-20 years.

This will increase our energy demand. 

And at the same time, we will be able to meet our incremental energy at affordable rates because of the progress that we are making in technology, because of the abundance of renewable resources that nature has blessed our country with.

So, I believe that India will be among the fastest growing large economy and our energy needs are going to double in next couple of decades.

India will overtake the European Union as the world's third-largest economy. In my view, by sometime around 2030-2032.

So, India has to address three challenges.

One, India must increase energy output to drive double-digit GDP growth, and we have to do it at an affordable basis of the use of technology.

Second, India must increase the share of Green and Clean Energy in this enhanced output. And third, India must achieve the goal of ‘Self-reliance or Atmanirbhar Bharat’ in pursuing the above two challenges.

This of course, cannot happen overnight. For the next 2-3 decades, India’s dependence on coal and imported oil will continue.

But, we must have a plan to eliminate that in the next 2-3 decades.

Hence, in the near and medium term, we will have to follow LOW-CARBON, and NO-CARBON, strategies of development. Affordable and abundant supply of clean energy will enable every Indian an improved standard of living without disturbing the ecological balance.

And this generation has the responsibility to put a successive generation on path whereby we remain perpetually clean.  We have the responsibility of the transition generation.

I think this is very, very exciting as a scientist, technologist I look at these grand challenges and find them extremely interesting. The issue is following, I mean there are all this new energies, technologies some of which we are creating, some of which we are adopting but again the essence is doing it swiftly.

 Well, I think from my experience and my perspective, this is modular and decentralised. When we build a centralised plants or when even build say nuclear plants for energy, they take a lot of upfront design, they take a lot of infrastructure, and they take between 4-6 years.

What happens in the decentralised energy world, is yes, you take some time to innovate, get the product right, then there is the modular execution. So, this is the same as the exponential change, right.

We all know that in linear, if you walk twenty steps, you walk twenty meters. If you walk twenty exponential steps, you will go twenty times around the world.

Cleary, I think all of us will be surprised by the rate at which technology catches up, because it is decentralised and modular. Once you have the right efficiencies, you don’t really need it.

Yes, right from Papa’s time, phone call at a cost of a postcard to your days, when you said voice is free, you have always set audacious targets, and you recently announced such an audacious target, can we talk a little about the one world target that has excited the whole world?

We really believe that in the next one decade, we have to make sure that all these technologies that I mentioned will bring cost of green hydrogen at a dollar per kilo and make sure that we transport and disburse it also at less than a dollar per kilo thereafter.

I have always believed that aiming high and failing is allowed, but aiming low is not allowed, so that was the reason behind this impossible goal and as we work on it, it doesn’t look that impossible and I think we will be able to do all this plus or minus 20%.

Thank you, Dr Mashelkar ji. It was an engaging and engrossing conversation.

Let me summarise my five key messages.

One: The Climate Crisis is an existential crisis for Planet Earth, and the entire world must overcome this crisis with the highest level of cooperation and partnership.

Two: The world must make a rapid transition from OLD ENERGY to NEW ENERGY, which is necessary for mankind’s larger transition from an INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION to an ECOLOGICAL OR EARTH-FRIENDLY REVOLUTION.

Three: India will lead this transition from fossil fuels to Green and Clean Energy and become major resource of Solar and Hydrogen Energy in the coming decades. It’s an opportunity worth seizing as we march from the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence to its Centenary in 2047.

Four: Our young and super-talented entrepreneurs will make India a Green Energy Superpower in the next 20 years, in the same that India became an IT Superpower in the last 20 years.

Five: Reliance is deeply committed to playing the leading role in creating India’s Green Economy with large-scale generation of green employment opportunities.

Best wishes, once again, to Pune International Centre. And thanks for inviting me to this Fireside Chat.

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