Vipul Tuli is a firm believer in India’s energy transition, which has gained tremendous momentum in recent years.
Tuli has spent close to three decades in the energy sector, with his expertise spanning upstream oil and gas, refining, marketing, petrochemicals and the power sector.
Now chief executive, South Asia, of Singapore-headquartered Sembcorp Industries, he says a rapid transition has unfolded in the Indian energy sector, with the share of solar and wind energy poised to grow significantly in the coming years.
“In the last six years, we’ve sort of come straight into the heart of the energy transition. I would say the speed of transition has been quite remarkable,” he says.
While Tuli agrees that 60% to 70% of the national energy mix could continue to be dominated by hydrocarbons, he says the share of renewables is going up rapidly:
“We’ve gone from almost zero renewable energy in India to around 10% share of renewables [in power generation].”
He points out that the country is making big strides towards electrification of its energy system, a process that is expected to gain further momentum.
“India is rapidly moving towards electrification... if you look at railways, we’ve taken a decision to go for full electrification,” he adds.
While coal and oil and gas are still the mainstays of India’s energy system, renewable energy has changed the narrative drastically.
Tuli has been helming Sembcorp Industries’ operations in South Asia, overseeing a mix of non-renewable and renewable-based power generation portfolios in India in almost equal proportions.
The company has a balanced portfolio involving a mix of conventional and renewable energy assets totalling almost 4.77 gigawatts in operation or under construction.
However, in an indication of the way the country is moving, Tuli says new project funding is “exclusively heading towards renewables”.
This shift in focus comes on the back of growing environmental, social and governance requirements placed on companies from operations and funding standpoints.
While Tuli agrees that the share of natural gas in India’s energy market is poised to double in the near future, he says its share in the power sector is expected to be fairly small, considering the dearth of domestic supplies.
India is becoming increasingly dependent on liquefied natural gas imports, due to supply constraints surrounding gas that is produced domestically.
With LNG prices hitting the roof, he says this form of feedstock it is unlikely to be competitive for power generation in the country on a long-term basis.
Tuli sees strong potential for the use of hydrogen in India and believes that once cost curves for green hydrogen start to decline, it will play a much more prominent role.
“You cut the cost of an electrolyser [a key technology at the heart of green hydrogen production] by half, and suddenly you're going to have quite a bit in hydrogen generation.”
The key question for India would be “how quickly can green hydrogen hit the cost level that makes the transportation of ammonia, the generation of hydrogen and the transportation of ammonia actually viable?”
The speed of transition has been quite remarkable.
Tuli has a degree in chemical engineering from India’s premier engineering institution, the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, and a master’s in business administration from the Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata.
He joined global consultancy firm McKinsey in 1992, where he led the Asian energy practice.
In his 23 years with McKinsey, he worked closely with several oil and gas companies, helping them transform and innovate across their operations.
“I was always much more of an oil and gas person,” he says.
Tuli recollects helping a key Indian upstream company to turn around its declining oil and gas fields, especially those located offshore, when it was going through a challenging phase.
“I think it [oil and gas] taught me a lot about governance... what excited me most about serving companies in the oil and gas sector was just the size and complexity of these companies.”
The second big lesson from his involvement with hydrocarbon players was that things can change quickly in the corporate world.
Tuli was born in Cochin in the south-west state of Kerala, but grew up in Mumbai before studying at the Modern School in Delhi.
As a child, he was academic and disciplined, a trait he absorbed from his father, who was in the Indian Navy.
Although unclear what career path to follow, he opted for engineering, a decision that has stood him in good stead.
He has taken to woodworking during the Covid-19 pandemic, inspired by his wife.
“I started just before the lockdown. Carpentry helps me de-stress and I cherish the time alone in my workshop at home,” he says.
Woodworking unleashes his creativity and forces him to work with his hands, offering balance in a career where it's all about working with the mind.