We have come quite far, from envisioning solar power as our distant future to executing solar energy projects to meet our current energy demands !
Rounak Kharait, our next pathbreaker, Solar Energy Assessment Lead at DNV Energy, heads a team that runs energy estimates and uncertainty analysis for solar energy projects across North America to help lenders finance large scale/residential/rooftop solar projects.
Rounak talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being drawn to the application based aspects of renewable energy rather than research based aspects in order to understand the real on-the-ground issues that renewable energy projects face during implementation.
For students, we still have a long way to go before renewable energy becomes mainstream, but in order for that to happen, you must invest your skills in the future, because that knowledge is going to reap rich dividends in the later years.
Rounak, can you talk a little bit about your background?
I have a humble background growing up in Pune, Maharashtra. My father is a mechanical engineer and mother is a homemaker. They helped me and my brother build a strong foundation of health and education as we grew up. Studies were important, but so was physical and mental health. I first participated in a roller-skating competition when I was 6 years old and won a medal. I understood the importance of practice, hard work and focus very early in my childhood. We had to relocate to a different part of the city after which I switched to playing cricket. I led my under-14 team to state championships, played nationals and during the same year was one of the toppers in class. I learnt multitasking and prioritising early in life which is reaping dividends today!
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I have two master’s degrees; one in Renewable Energy Engineering from Kingston University, London and one in Mechanical Engineering from Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colorado, USA. Both degrees were thesis based where my thesis dissertations were related to solar energy modelling and experimentation. During my undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from VIT, my final year thesis project was in developing a novel solar air-drying system with heat storage. This project won several awards which inspired me to pursue my career in renewables.
Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I would say my parents, my wife, my daughter, and my supportive family are key influencers for my career. They supported, encouraged, and pushed me to take on new challenges which resulted in where I am today. Another big influence on my life was my cricket coach, Mr. Vaidya. He taught me to balance sports and studies and taught me the 5 Ds which are the key to success, 1) Dedication 2) Devotion 3) Discipline 4) Decision and 5) Determination. I practice this every day. He also taught me the importance of physical and mental health and how it is all connected. A healthy body has a healthy mind. Till date, I continue to do that. I can’t commit to a full day of cricket, but have picked up tennis and play it regularly to ensure I am physically and mentally fit to face the challenges at work and in life.
Turning points in my life were definitely in 8th grade when I was chosen to be the captain of the cricket team. I had the added responsibility to lead the team and learnt so much about handling personalities and adapting to different situations. I am also an amateur astronomer. I started the astronomy club in VIT, Pune called Antariksh, which has over 500 members now. My passion for astronomy encouraged me to learn more about our planet and other celestial objects. It made me aware about global warming and inspired me to pursue a career in renewables. Today, I am proud that I work in an industry that is going to help future generations live a better life. The sentimental value of my work is immense and it gets me out of bed every morning.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
I got exposed to the solar energy industry during my final year thesis project for my undergraduate studies. I worked with Akson Solar Equipment Pvt Ltd as an intern to help develop novel solar air-drying solutions. This really inspired me to pursue post-graduation in renewable energy. I got admitted into Kingston University, London’s M.Sc Renewable Energy Engineering program.
I chose the M.Sc. program in Renewable Energy Engineering from Kingston University, London as it was more of application based engineering rather than research based. I wanted to know about issues that renewable energy projects face while they were being actually installed. For e.g. the transportation of 80 meters wind blades through small roads and towns on trucks is an actual concern while getting wind turbines installed at a remote location. That can be and is solved by engineering first principles – but I wanted that exposure to understand how this could impact implementation. The real challenge of renewables is to make it investment friendly (with higher/equivalent rate of returns or smaller payback period) and risk averse. We are achieving all of those goals today, as we see a lot of coal projects being no longer financially feasible.
The main focus of my interest was in the practical experience and making sure how we can get the industry comfortable with reliable energy from renewable energy resources like solar, wind and now storage. The courses I took at both Kingston university and Colorado School of Mines were relevant in gaining practical experience. For e.g. at Kingston University, one of our tasks was to write a Wind Project Technical Due Diligence report. This included actual visit to the potential wind site, meeting the local municipality and addressing the biological, ecological, archeological and aesthetic questions related to wind plants. It also involved estimating the wind energy generated from the plant. At Colorado School of Mines, the research was to support the US Department of Energy in reducing the levelized cost of energy, using solar thermal storage, to a certain threshold that would make the technology viable for commercialisation.
I excelled in class and was interviewed. My interview was published on the university website as a role model for future students. After my first masters, I got my first real-world experience at Thermax Limited as a proposal engineer in their Engineering Procurement and Construction (EPC) division. In 2010-11, solar energy was very new to the Indian market as well as for Thermax. With my colleagues, I helped establish the solar division at Thermax which is now flourishing.
At Thermax, my main role was in pricing the engineering procurement and construction for a potential solar photovoltaic project. First, I used to design the size of the plant required for the customer, based on location, demand, availability etc. Then, I would run a model to estimate the energy that would be generated through that project. Once that was completed, I would convince the customer that this estimate makes sense
After 3 years at Thermax, I thought I needed to gain more knowledge and work in a place where the solar market is a bit mature. So, I decided to apply for another post-graduation at Colorado School of Mines, USA. I got admitted into the program as a full-time teaching assistant where I worked on synthesising and testing perovskites for solar thermal applications. Our work was for the Department of Energy and in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The problem statement laid down by the US Department of Energy was to reduce the levelized cost of energy through concentrated solar thermal plants with storage, to 5 cents/kWh, by 2030. This needed exploration and research on thermo-chemical storage. In my research work, I studied the thermo-chemical storage characteristics of earth-abundant perovskites ( to make it cheaper) for application in concentrated solar power projects.
I did not get any scholarship for my masters program in London, however I got full Teaching Assistantship for my role at Colorado School of Mines.
The US industry is much more mature in terms of understanding solar technologies, developing policies around renewable energy and the comfort level in accepting solar projects as reliable investments. The Investment Tax Credits (ITC) accelerated the growth and expansion of the solar market in the US. In India, there were similar policies like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission launched in 2009, but the market took a while to get to the same level as advanced market like US. Today, I’d say both markets are flourishing and we are seeing a lot of renewable energy projects being installed on the ground, which is fantastic to see!
After finishing my studies at Colorado School of Mines, I joined Leidos Inc as a solar engineer where I supported over 2 GW of solar energy assessments in the span of 2 years.
At Leidos, I was the independent engineer appointed by the bank/lender to determine if the developer is estimating the solar energy from the project correctly. I am playing a similar role currently at DNV. At NextEra, I was on the other side of the table defending solar energy assessments to the independent engineer
I wanted to use my skill sets in managing teams with a strong foundation of technical knowledge, hence I made the shift to NextEra Energy Resources. NextEra is one of the largest solar and solar plus storage developers in the world. I joined as the Solar Resource Assessment Supervisor and developed a strong team to support Nextera’s ambitions. I supported over 4 GW of solar energy assessments in the 2+ years at NextEra.
A Solar Energy Assessment is the study to estimate the energy that will be generated from the solar project for the period of 20 to 25 years. This is one of the key inputs in a financial model for a solar project developer. Other inputs to the financial model are capital expenditure, operational expenditure, financial costs etc. But the revenue of the project is directly proportional to the energy generated from the project. Solar is now being coupled with storage to store the extra energy that is clipped due to grid limitation/strategic dispatch because of demand. Coupling solar with storage adds additional challenges to the modelling side, but is more fun in my opinion 😊
I was provided another challenging opportunity to develop a solar energy assessment team at DNV Energy, one of the world’s leading consultants, and I joined them in September 2019. I am currently the Head of Section of the Solar Energy Assessment team of 15 analysts.
How did you get your first break?
After completing my masters degree at Kingston University, I didn’t get many opportunities in the UK for work. I decided to come back to India and find work near my hometown. I got a break when I met a few people at Thermax Limited. I was very clear that I wanted to work in the renewables industry, even if it took time, and I was going to wait for the right opportunity. Thermax limited was the perfect fit – a big company looking to explore a completely new territory. I learnt a lot by asking questions and challenging the status-quo. I was always welcomed with open arms in the company and I grew a lot.
After my second masters in the US, I learnt from my past mistakes and networked significantly on LinkedIn. I applied to several jobs, found recruiters, contacted hiring managers specific to that job and connected with them. I landed my first job after my masters at Leidos by applying for the job and then meeting the hiring manager over coffee. At the coffee shop, I made a 10-minute presentation on why I am a good fit for the job. This was not expected/planned but showed the hiring manager my preparation, dedication and desire to go all the way. I followed the same approach to get my other jobs and strongly believe in networking.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Adapting to different situations
The technical knowledge and degrees that you learn as you grow in your career are only going to help you get your foot in the door. The real challenge is to adapt your knowledge, style and approach to different challenging situations. For e.g. I manage a diverse group of people with different personalities; so, I must adapt my management style to suit their needs and make sure I get the best out of them
Challenge 2: Failure is a part of life
I actually got admitted into the PhD program at Colorado School of Mines, but failed my qualifiers. I tried my best, but I wasn’t enjoying the laboratory work and possibly, the career that might follow. I realized that my passion lies in actual field implementation and project work rather than theoretical research. Both are important in their own way, but my skills and passion matched the implementation side of the coin. I completed my masters thesis and didn’t give up on my dream of working in renewables. I realized failure is just a part of life and it should happen to all, so that we learn to get ourselves up and then be the champion that we all can truly be
Challenge 3: Balancing work-life
As I grew and had a family, I realized the importance of balancing work-life. Being workaholic in nature wasn’t helping my physical and mental health. I went back to the basics my coach and family ingrained in me – a healthy body equals a healthy mind. I also make sure I spend good quality time with my family as at the end of the day that is what matters most. Spending time for yourself and family will help sustain yourself in the long-run.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve in Renewable Energy?
My team and I help run energy estimates and uncertainty analysis for solar energy projects across North America. Our numbers, as independent engineers, are used by lenders to finance large scale/residential/rooftop solar projects.
A very simple example is an analogy of buying a house. Let us say that you were buying a house with 20% down payment and you are looking for a loan for 80% of the price of the house. In this case, you go to the bank and the bank independently verifies your identity and has a credit approval rating. Let us take that for solar projects. A developer will look for a loan upto a certain amount to implement/buy a solar project. The lender will decide what interest rate they can give to the developer based on their credit rating, balance sheet and an independent third-party opinion on the project. This is where we come in and support the industry – in a nutshell, we help finance solar projects.
In terms of the real world problems, ultimately we are trying to solve the problem of climate change by reducing our carbon footprint. For DNV, the aim is to walk hand-in-hand with our customers for this digital energy transformation and make this world a better place for future generations!!!
What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?
I strongly believe I need to have the deep technical knowledge to lead a team of analysts. If I am not able to do the job that they do, myself, I do not believe I can expect a lot from them. Every now and then I roll up my sleeves and run energy estimates myself. So, the master’s degrees in renewable energy and mechanical engineering helped me have a strong foundation, while my team and time management skills helped me develop a strong team capable of taking on new challenges everyday
What’s a typical day like?
As Head of Section, I now have annual revenue and business development targets, along with supporting the day-to-day work. I also support DNV’s long-term strategic targets of solar and solar plus storage projects. A typical day also has a lot of meetings 😊
What is it you love about this job?
As I mentioned previously, the fact that I am working in an industry which is helping tackle global warming is THE most important thing I love about this job. Secondly, I love the fast-paced nature and managing a team
How does your work benefit society?
My team and I are helping get maximum solar and solar plus storage projects on the ground, thus offsetting our carbon footprint! This inspires me everyday and hopefully inspires others to follow suit!
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
While at NextEra, my team and I lead the solar resource and energy assessment team to develop the world’s first renewable energy project that combines solar, wind and batteries at a single location. The team worked on optimizing the size of the solar, wind and battery technology to replace the greater than 1,000 MW coal power plant by 100% renewable energy. My role was critical in analyzing the solar data and using this solar energy modeling expertise to produce the required deliverables in record time. Expected project value was 1.8 billion dollars.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Follow your passion and be patient. Early in your career, don’t go after money as it is an easy distraction. Try gaining as much knowledge as you can in early stages of the career, that knowledge is going to reap rich dividends in the later years
Keep learning new things and help the world be a better place by playing a lion’s share in the global energy transformation. I hope to rise to CEO-level one-day and continue to inspire future generations. The future is here, it is now, and I am going to give my best!