Interview with Mridula Ramesh

Founder, Sundaram Climate Institute

“The private sector is an under-tapped resource”

Mridula Ramesh is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, an organisation focused on waste and water solutions, and education. She is also an active angel investor in cleantech startups. A graduate with distinction from Cornell University and an MBA from Kellogg School of Management, Ramesh worked at McKinsey in Silicon Valley before returning to India. An executive director of Sundaram Textiles, she currently lives and experiments in a net zero-waste house in Madurai. Renewable Watch met her on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 where she spoke about her new book The Climate Solution, her opinion about renewables in India and the challenges in its growth. Edited excerpts…

Is India headed in the right direction by promoting renewables?

When I talk of climate change action, I think of energy as the easy piece because it reduces costs. One reason for this is that India has a meaningful carbon price. One way we can get a greater buy-in for a carbon tax in countries like the US, where “tax” is a bad word, is by paying the revenue back to the people as a carbon dividend. For industries, electricity is one of the major costs, and, so, learning how to manage and optimise it is one of the key priorities.

The textile industry is one of the earliest and the largest owners and users of wind energy plants in India. Sundaram Textiles Limited (STL), part of the TVS Group, has received a total plant maintenance (TPM) award from the Japanese Institute of Plant Maintenance (JIPM). One of the main “losses” addressed by TPM is the energy loss, which encouraged STL to become highly energy efficient. STL set up five wind turbines between 2005 and 2009.

We also have biogas plants at home and at the factory, which run on food waste mostly. Converting wet waste into biogas is an area that has not received as much attention as solar in India, and, in my book, I talk about the aspects that one needs to look at from a climate change perspective.

What are the lessons India could learn from other economies?

India is on track to meet at least two of its climate change targets. However, what we need is quality, and accessible and timely data for better designing solutions. Action becomes easy once you have granular, timely and accurate data – something I’ve written about extensively. At home, we have four different qualities of water upwards of 15 metres, to measure what is used where and how. This is what allows us to become water independent, with design changes that make for “easy action”. In our factories, we have more than 100 water meters and this has led to a reduction in water usage by more than a million litres per month. We have a higher number of energy meters, which lets us intervene at a machine, and often, at a sub-machine level.

Which sector do you feel plays the most important role in the renewable energy space in India?

Today, commercial and industrial tariffs, due to cross-subsidisation, are high. This makes it much easier to sell energy efficiency/renewable energy solutions to the commercial and industrial consumers. Residential rooftop solar is also gaining traction, with the solar-as-a-service model catching on. If we can crack solar storage and microgrid solutions, we can really make progress on green energy access!

In the agricultural sector, the issue is more complicated. Borewells are mostly owned by rich farmers and and run on solar-powered pumps, which can lead to ground water depletion, and are a highly unequal water access strategy. Pricing electricity for farmers is a more efficient strategy from a water management perspective. In rural India, solar power DC microgrids represent an economic way of addressing the issues of both energy access and energy emissions, but entrepreneurs are worried about payment risks and the grid coming to town. Farm loan waivers, a favoured pre-election tactic, no doubt shares some blame for the poor repayment culture.

Given the language problem in India, how do you suggest we filter the climate change issues down to the rural level?

We need to reframe the climate change issue in the language that resonates with the user. Don’t talk about emissions and warming in the decades to come to someone who does not know where and when his next paycheck is coming from. Talk about the issue of water availability and flooding, and the heat in summer or the temperamental rains destroying the harvests.

Waste is a big problem in India, encompassing segregation, lack of awareness, changing mindsets, government priorities, hygiene, and costs, etc. In your opinion, what are the solutions to these issues?

I did a waste management workshop in Mumbai and focused on “poka-yoke” – a Japanese term that means “mistake-proofing” or “inadvertent error prevention”. In this context, the importance of designing waste management systems to work without constant supervision is crucial. We are hovering between net zero waste and net negative waste at home. The best part is that there is no smell, which is a common problem in most of the waste management solutions.

Our biogas plant at home saves us about a gas cylinder a month, or more when there is more waste. The same applies to our textile factory. We undertook waste mapping (that is, where is it coming from and what to do with it?) at the Meenakshi Temple and set up a biogas plant using food waste and elephant/cow dung.

Also, asking the government to do everything is an ineffective choice. I think, having the prime minister talk about toilets at the Red Fort is spot-on and is leading to a mental re-set. But true action on waste begins with its segregation at home, at the source. In that sense, action has to come from the bottom up.

How do we replicate the “climate warriors” or the success stories (particularly in the field of renewables) on a larger scale?

There is a story of how biogas can be made at scale from wet waste. It is about a venture I have invested in, which is doing this in Bangalore. Recycling of plastic bottles into yarn is already being done in India. We, at the Sundaram Climate Institute, are making bags with it, instead of using virgin polyester, which is costlier and results in fresh emissions.

Another way to get this up to the societal level is by engaging children. I wrote a set of children’s stories and am designing a full curriculum on waste management, including composting. This will be taught using games, cartoons, etc. and has already been piloted. It should be ready for roll-out by March this year, in English and Tamil. Our pilots show that the children loved it, and more importantly, they understood it. So create climate change awareness – do it with kids.

What kind of startups are you investing in?

The private sector is an under-tapped resource. We all know that technology can solve the day and I have an entire chapter dedicated to this. We need to incentivise technology. In the US, artificial intelligence and robots are solving aging and labour problems.

In India, there are no meaningful markets created in the areas of water, last-mile agriculture or solid waste. Startups will help this sector as their incentives are completely aligned with addressing the issue. They do not make money until they provide solutions that work.

For example, there is a company called Ergos, which provides farmers a digital platform backed by a grid of rural medium and micro warehouses at farm-gate for storage, credit access, and forward linkages. Essentially, they rent government storage out and make it accessible to farmers, and bring down spoilage rates from 25 per cent to 2-5 per cent. Plus, the receipts given to farmers help them access credit through their tie-ups with public sector banks. This can be scaled up with the right investment and the startup can make money through processing fees, storage, etc.

The startups are mostly begun by older entrepreneurs as the work is more frustrating and requires more patience. I have invested in Bengaluru, Chennai and Delhi among other places, in more than 12 startups, eight to nine of them in cleantech (non-solar). Startups are a great way to address climate change, and here waste management is not simply a low-hanging fruit; it is a fruit that’s fallen to the ground.

What has been your most inspiring achievement till date?

I did not play the victim card when our home ran out of water in Madurai. We were paying Rs 40,000 a month for water. The realisation that this was not someone else’s problem, but mine, to fix, and then realising that it is not only fixable, but also not-that-hard-to-do was my biggest “a-ha” moment. Large-scale suffering and migration will set in if we do not take care of the climate and water issues.

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