Watch out, here comes the sun!
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
Having grown up around environmentalists, it’d always been impressed upon me that the climate emergency was not one to ignore, and this urgency has only increased over the years. So, when I meet 31-year-old Santi Srichawla, Director at solar energy business, Solar D, I’m thrilled – or delighted, as it were – to meet someone my age who is the bright spark needed to boost the renewable energy sector in Thailand.
And it’s not only ‘dirty’ energy that he wishes to address, he tells me off the bat, it’s allowing the masses to afford renewable energy: “One of the things that I feel is most unfair in this world is the wealth gap,” he reveals. “And what I value about Solar D is that one of its core values is to decentralise the energy sector – to give people who consume energy the chance to also produce that energy.”
Santi credits the way he thinks – his perfectionism, ambition, and his entrepreneurial mindset – to his upbringing and education. This started with the values rooted in Thai culture that he learned in Thai school; to the expressiveness that he learned in the International School of Bangkok (ISB), from which he graduated with honours; to the entrepreneurial spirit impressed upon him in Babson College. The latter, he tells me, has been the, “number one university in the US in entrepreneurship for the past 20 years,” he says with understandable pride.
“A lot of people say, ‘entrepreneurship is just learning how to start a new business,’ but actually, anyone can start a business at any time,” he tells me. “Entrepreneurship is about being opportunity obsessed: in your personal life, your family life, or business. Wherever you see an opportunity, you execute it to the best that you can.”
This way of operating, he reveals, is what allowed him to finish Babson College half a year quicker than he should have, and what led him to start a business in his second year of university. Although the latter failed, he learned to see opportunities all around him, and by his third year of university, he’d joined ThinkLite, a lighting company in which he saw so much potential, he eventually brought it to Thailand. “They wanted to open up in a European country, but my background and connections were here, so I brought the company to Thailand when I graduated in 2014,” he recalls. “And they’re still operating here. They were an LED manufacturer at a time when that industry was booming. But over time, LED became a commodity, and people started valuing price over quality, so we mostly operated B2B. Our relationships with those clients is what eventually led me to Solar D.”
Having met the Solar D team at an exhibition, he’d recommended them to one of his clients, who had been looking for an alternative energy source. Soon, he was helping clients with their transition to solar energy, and in 2018, he joined Solar D in terms of sweat equity and investment. “Over the years, I learned that it’s not just about the product, it’s about the market needs as well.” That focus on what the market needs is how Solar D became the first certified installer of the Tesla Powerwall energy storage system, and he spoke to Masala further on how they’re leading the charge in this and other ways.
Can you give us a little of your professional insight into why renewable energy, and specifically solar energy, is so important in Thailand’s push to combat climate change? What is Solar D’s role in the industry?
This emergency is why the mission statement of Solar Distoacceleratethetransitiontosolarenergy.When you talk about renewable energy, there are many forms, but in Thailand, it’s mostly limited to solar, because of the environment. For example, wind turbines can only work in one or two locations in Thailand, as there’s not enough wind elsewhere.
Energy operations in this country are very centralised: it’s coming from two sources, the Metropolitan Electricity Authority (MEA) and Provincial Electricity Authority (PEA), who are responsible for building power plants. Given that they are government-owned, to get enough funds to build these power plants, they have to partner with well-known companies, who will then own a certain percentage of the plant, or they’ll get a percentage guarantee of yield from the government. But even this is not enough, and the country has had to buy energy from neighbouring countries – Laos, Vietnam, and others. Because of this, developing our own solar energy has become more and more pressing, while still keeping in mind bureaucracy and politics.
When we talk about solar, there are two segments, commercial and residential. On the commercial scale, it’s become quite big; a lot of people are producing and consuming solar, so there’s a lot of investment. On the residential side is where the disconnect is. In developed countries, over 40-50 percent of homes or SMEs already have solar. But in Thailand and other developing countries, it’s less than 5 percent.
It’s not because of the price – the investment costs in solar have already come down. It’s a storage issue – if you produce solar but don’t use it during the day, it becomes a waste. In Thailand, there are 18 million homes, and 90-95 percent of people aren’t home during the day. So even if you invest in a solar rooftop, there’s no point. The missing link is the Powerwall, or any other storage system. We introduced a product into the market from Tesla that helps improve the ecosystem, to allow the 18 million homes in Thailand to store solar energy, and they can use this storage system whenever they need it.
Solar D’s revenue this year was THB 1.2 billion. The residential side makes up about 25 to 30 percent of our business, the other 70 percent is industrial and commercial installations. In fact, many may not know this, but the Board of Investment (BoI) in Thailand gives a 50 percent incentive for commercial use, so if you purchase solar, you can redeem it through profit tax. That immediately cuts the return in half.
What drove Solar D to invest in the Tesla Powerwall, and how do you believe it will change Thailand’s energy landscape?
We started talking to Tesla around 2.5 years ago, when they already had the Tesla Powerwall, and they were looking to expand internationally. There were around 12 companies that approached them, and most were public companies, so we had to be comprehensive in our presentation to them. The qualification process took about 1.5 years, and at the end, they told us they selected us because our whole presentation was based on customer experience and design.
Tesla’s vision in those two things really aligned with us, because others were focusing more on volume and growth, but what Tesla wanted was the customer experience in Thailand to be the same as in the US. Anyone who owns a Powerwall needs to be able to enjoy all the features. It’s not just a battery – there are so many other benefits, such as engaging with the application and monitoring your power usage.
We keep the look of the roof consistent and beautiful by using all-black panels and a mounting structure that you can almost put a frame on. Like with Apple, people don’t know what they want until you give it to them. If you present a roof that’s beautiful, that also produces energy, people will prefer that over an ugly roof. And funnily enough, Tesla in the US had the same design – the frame, black mounting; they were very impressed that we had developed the same design, which is why they chose us.
In your experience, why are customers choosing to invest in solar energy and the Powerwall?
The first reason is for contingencies against power outages. You’d be surprised that in Bangkok, most areas have power outages; when we did our research, we realised it was a big pain point in Thailand. When that outage happens, the Powerwall will supply power seamlessly.
Second is energy independency, which is one of Tesla’s missions. Part of decentralising energy is allowing you to be independent and produce your own energy. You can eventually go off-grid or 60-70 percent off-grid.
The third is safety and security. When you have the ability to monitor the energy in your house, you’ll be made aware through a notification from the Tesla app of whether or not you’ll need to address a strong energy fluctuation. If you weren’t informed, you wouldn’t know that fluctuation had happened until something breaks down in your house.
Finally, it’s money saving. The solar panels will produce energy, supply the home, and then charge the Powerwall. The Powerwall can supply the house later on when there’s no solar. You have that daily usage, plus the backup.
What exactly does your role in Solar D entail?
Now I’m everywhere! [Laughs] When you enter a company with so much potential for growth, it needs a vision and direction for each of the business units (BU). We began with just one BU, and now we have 6-7. I’m helping in all the BUs, but a lot of my time is still focused on business development.
When I joined the company in 2018, we wanted to move from a construction to a manufacturing company. My first investment into the company was building a factory, where we prefabricated all the systems. We developed robotic systems with Chulalongkorn University, and reduced labour – usually the installation of a solar rooftop system will need 30-40 people; for a Solar D rooftop, you need just two people.
Another of the main successes that I personally led in business development has been fundraising. We’re not a start-up, so while we’re open to exploring partners, if we don’t get the investment, we can still boostrap and grow. We closed in Q4 last year with the executives of Singha, PlanB, and KCE investing into Solar D, and it’s been a game changer since.
People are often curious about what it’s like to work in the energy sector – do you have any recommendations for anyone hoping to work in the industry?
If you want to work in this sector, you need to have at least the engineering basics down, so you gain that respect from people you’re talking to. I’m not from an engineering background, so when I found myself in the energy sector, I often ask myself what I’m doing here. [Laughs] But even I took the time to learn and understand the basics of engineering.
People in the energy sector are oftentimes very laser- focused so that can make them a little challenging to deal with [Laughs]. I guess I balance out the field a little bit. But you do need those basics – and this is one of the things I learnt as an entrepreneur, is that you need that perspective and to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes.
What are the advantages and challenges of entering the renewable energy space in Thailand? With initiatives like 30 by 30, how has the government’s efforts to grow the renewable energy sector been helpful so far?
I think the government has been great, especially with the subsidies from the BoI to help fund the growth of solar in the commercial and industrial sector. Where I think they need to be a little more active is on the residential side. People are asking, if you can deduct from the profit tax of a company, why can’t you deduct from personal tax – rebates or benefits on the personal side?
Another advantage is that people are looking for more and more ways to become energy independent. Electric Vehicles (EVs) are really coming up in Thailand, and that affects the big picture quite a bit, as the trend has made people more conscious of energy usage, and more aware of the source of the energy that they’re using. The market is also huge – energy consumption in Thailand has increased every year, except for two years during COVID. Even if rooftops for solar panels are finite, that growth alone will sustain the industry.
A challenge would be how complicated it is to achieve permission in Thailand. Finally, to enter into solar energy is one thing, but to succeed, you need innovation. For example, we have a development team of over 10 people who come up with new products every year.
What do you believe are the qualities in a good leader, and what do you attribute your success to?
You need to be able to wear a lot of hats, be able to help in every business unit, be well rounded, and not just focused on the things you’re specialised in. Other ones are delegation, and surrounding yourself with people who are the best at what you’re not good at. And create a culture that’s not hierarchy-based, but ideas based. The people who come up with good ideas here have good incentives to do so, both financially, and through recognition.
What or who have been your biggest support systems?
Family. I’m a family-oriented person, so my family gives me energy every day. I’ve just had a daughter, and she’s the angel of my life; both she and my wife help me get through a rough day. I also want to mention the rest of my family members, who’ve provided a foundation for me to develop and grow not only as a businessman, but as a person too. Without them, I would not be who I am today.
What are your plans for the future, both personally and professionally?
Hopefully by Q1 2025, Solar D would like to go public. But more than that, what I want to do is keep offering that innovation to the energy world, and really help people be able to afford solar energy. For example, we want to replace the whole roof structure with pure solar panels. Many are trying to do this, but we’re hoping to have a breakthrough in the near future.
With innovation, you often have to start with the most premium products before it reaches the masses. What I want is to get to that mass and offer our products to everyone.