Please tell us about yourself

For the fourth of our spotlights on Singapore’s cleantech sector, we met with Sujay Malve to talk about the insights that led him to founding Canopy Power, a renewable energy micro-grid solutions provider that is making its way into village electrification by addressing commercial business needs first. Here’s a part of our conversation.

“I come from a family of engineers in India. From a young age, I tinkered with things, so studying mechanical engineering was a natural choice. I completed my undergraduate studies in India and immediately after, I moved to the US to continue my education. I studied Masters in Industrial Engineering at Purdue University.

I was determined to start my own company right after my MBA. But it didn’t happen as quickly as I would have wished. I didn’t have a good business idea to go with.

After graduation, I stayed in the US and entered the renewable energy sector. My first job was making wind energy components — blades and gearboxes — for companies like GE and Vestas. After some years in the industry, I embarked on an MBA program at Kellogg and choose entrepreneurship as one of my majors. Not unexpectedly, I was determined to start my own company right afterward. But it didn’t happen as quickly as I would have wished. I didn’t have a good business idea to go with.”

What did you study?

I did my Mechanical Engineering at College of Engineering Pune

Tell us about your career path

While working in the renewable energy space in the APAC region, I recognized that there is a niche market for high-margin high-value renewable energy micro-grids.

“So, I became a management consultant with Booz & Company and two years later, I returned to the renewable energy space, joining REC Solar, a manufacturer of solar panels. I opened their Dubai office, then moved to Singapore to drive business development in the APAC region. While doing that, I recognized that there is a niche market for high-margin high-value renewable energy micro-grids.

In many places, the lack of electricity supply doesn’t mean that people are poor.

Definitely, this wasn’t totally new to me. I knew the problem. Back home in India, power blackouts often affected my studying. I remember how I was learning for an important exam and electricity would go off. There was nothing I could do about it. Even if the situation in India has improved ever since, other parts of the world are still dealing with this issue. And in many places, the lack of electricity supply doesn’t mean that people are poor.

Some of them may work in resorts and dispose over a decent income. They could afford electricity but don’t have access to it. A good example is the community of 800 households on Coron Island in the Philippines, where we conducted a survey. It was the cleanest village I’ve ever seen. People there had a good understanding of recycling and there were recycling bins everywhere. But no electricity since the diesel generator broke down.”

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

With that insight, I worked on a business plan for about 18 months, quit my job and co-founded Canopy Power together with Tim Walsh.

“More precisely, our services include the design and development of micro-grids supplied by hybrid solar-diesel generating source or photovoltaic systems with battery storage for off-grid customers such as island resorts, remote villages, mines, and plantations.

If we can get renewable power to these people, their lives will change.

As a team, we believe that electricity can change lives, and it can empower people.

This is why our mission statement is as simple as “Empowerment through electrification”. As a team, we believe that electricity can change lives, and it can empower people. Especially in this region.

Through our previous jobs, we traveled to remote areas, where people lacked access to electricity or enjoyed it for only two hours a day. We also encountered families and businesses running 24/7 on diesel and paying anywhere between $.50 to $1 per kilowatt hour, which is tremendously expensive. Now, if you add renewable energy to their energy mix, the costs per kilowatt hour is reduced to about $.30, with CO2 emissions dropping drastically. Considering a payback period within four to seven years and the system’s lifetime of about 20 years, the savings are significant.

Tell us about your experience at Canopy

“We opened our doors in April 2016. Our milestone for the first year was to secure one project and start construction. We achieved it and are about to close three more projects.

While we envision to reach those who need electricity the most — islands and remote villages with no access to electricity, as a company, we were aware that this cannot be our starting point.

While we envision to reach those who need electricity the most — islands and remote villages with no access to electricity, as a company, we were aware that this cannot be our starting point.

Surely, many enterprises have ventured into island electrification. But regulatory barriers made such intentions nearly impossible. In Indonesia, for instance, a private energy company can’t just install a generation system on an island and supply electricity to the people because, the local regulations allow only the local utility to sell electricity. It is a nightmare to overcome those barriers, and many of the electrification providing companies are dragged out of business.

We target private customers in the first place. Like this, we gain technical experience and learn how to navigate the regulatory environment in the countries we operate.

Instead of going that way, we preferred to target private customers in the first place. Like this, we gain technical experience and learn how to navigate the regulatory environment in the countries we operate. For example, our first project in Indonesia enabled us to measure our impact. Misool Eco Resort, a resort and conservation center located in remote southern Raja Ampat, hired us to upgrade their existing diesel micro-grid with solar PV and Li-ion batteries. As a result, their diesel consumption dropped by about 60 percent.

There are at least 200 million people in Southeast Asia with no access to electricity. If we complete ten electrification projects, we reach 50,000 people. Compared to the 200 million people in need, it’s a drop in the ocean.

Now, looking at the bigger picture, there are at least 200 million people in Southeast Asia with no access to electricity. The number could be bigger and it includes both individuals and businesses. With one project, we might reach about 5,000 people. In fact, our next project in the Philippines is designed to provide renewable energy power to an island with 5,000 inhabitants. If we complete ten such projects, we reach 50,000 people. Compared to the 200 million people in need, it’s a drop in the ocean. So, to have a sizable impact on these 200 million people, another approach is needed.”

Our aim is to build a design toolkit that would allow locals to take action. At this point, we train people to install the micro-grid system. With the toolkit, they would also be able to design it, which would ultimately create a multiplier effect.

“Closing our first deal granted us access to financial support from the Singapore government. With it, we built a remote monitoring technology system. This technology is a field device that sits on top of off-grid electricity generating systems and collects data for remote troubleshooting and analysis of problems.

Talking to resort owners across Asia, I often heard complaints about power outages due to system failures.

They’d tell me ‘We bought this off-grid power system for which we paid half a million dollars. The guys built the system, and then they left. Now when the system goes down, we don’t know what’s happening. So we call these guys. They come to fix it but only after two months because they are like literally thousand kilometers away. Sometimes when they are here, all they do is press some buttons, then it works again’.

We want to solve this problem and more. Having real-time data will allow us to optimize those systems so that energy consumption is reduced.

The beta version of our remote monitoring device will be launched in about two months.”

“Shaping the vision, defining the mission and deciding what to achieve in the short, medium and long-term has helped us create a company environment where everyone can grow.

It took four people to get where we are now and we have just recruited a new team member. On the surface, it’s easy to see what brought us together: everybody’s an engineer and all of us come from the PV industry. As a matter of fact, in a way or another, we worked together before becoming a team. However, what really holds us all together is a character trait beyond the obvious. One thing I noticed is that these people are highly self-motivated. They don’t need micromanagement. They know what needs to be done and are working towards the mission that we all share.

As a business and a team, we have crossed the seed phase and are entering the growth phase. At this stage, we focus on building capabilities on the technology side and establishing a strong customer base. Two years down the line, however, our scope of work will expand.

We want to be able to provide a comprehensive package for micro-grid solutions, including project development, technical solutions, and financing. Financing is an enabler. 95 percent of potential customers need financing. If that problem remains unaddressed, we will only deal with 5%. This will be part of the future business model.”