Solving energy access and pollution with hydrogen fuel cells

In this insightful interview, Santosh Gurunath, Founder of Umagine, shares the inspiring journey of establishing Umagine to address climate change and sustainability gaps in corporate focus. With a background in oil and gas, Santosh transitioned to entrepreneurship, emphasizing Umagine’s role as a change agent in sustainability.

The conversation delves into Umagine’s evolution from a Netherlands-based EPC company to a hydrogen-focused entity in India. Santosh highlights challenges in green hydrogen, Umagine’s pivotal role in the hydrogen fuel cell space, and the vision to leverage indigenous technology for India’s energy transition. He also offers valuable advice to business leaders and policymakers.


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IBT: What prompted the establishment of Umagine?

Santosh Gurunath: Umagine was founded in response to my experiences working in large corporates, particularly in oil and gas companies and management consulting firms like Shell and McKinsey. I observed a minimal focus on climate change and sustainability in these organizations. Recognizing the critical importance of addressing such issues and realizing the need for a comprehensive approach, I decided to create Umagine. The goal was to be a change agent in the sustainability and climate change space, inspiring others to contribute to a positive impact.

Umagine has been on a journey for over four years, initially starting in the Netherlands and later shifting its focus to India in 2021. Our primary focus has been on green hydrogen, and over the past two years, we have been actively involved in India, engaging in various aspects of the green hydrogen value chain.

IBT: What is the significant technology Umagine is developing to promote sustainability, and how does it function?

Santosh Gurunath: Umagine is concentrating its efforts on hydrogen fuel cells, considering their promise in contributing to sustainability. The technology focuses on solving two key challenges. First, it aims to replace diesel-related generator sets with hydrogen fuel cells, providing a cleaner and more sustainable alternative. Second, it addresses the issue of energy access, especially in regions facing power shortages or load shedding. Hydrogen fuel cells for stationary power applications offer a solution for long-duration energy storage and intermittent renewable energy sources.

Umagine is developing application-specific technology within the hydrogen fuel cell space, catering to various needs such as small-scale residential applications, medium-scale microgrids, large-scale data centers, and grid-level applications. The goal is to provide specific solutions for different use cases, considering factors like backup duration and renewable energy integration. Additionally, there is a focus on the indigenization of components to reduce dependence on external sources.

IBT: How does Umagine tailor its services to meet the specific requirements of industries transitioning to hydrogen, such as steel, cement, and mobility?

Santosh Gurunath: While Umagine’s products, particularly in hydrogen fuel cells for stationary power, may not directly overlap with applications in industries like steel, cement, and mobility, the company provides advisory services to support these sectors. Umagine assists industries in developing roadmaps for transitioning to hydrogen, and evaluating the feasibility and business case for incorporating hydrogen in their operations.

The company offers services in strategy, policy, engineering, and design, providing valuable insights for industries exploring hydrogen adoption. For example, Umagine works with companies to develop strategies for green hydrogen deployment, helping them navigate policy considerations and advising on technology adoption. While the primary focus is on stationary power applications, Umagine’s expertise extends to providing advisory services for industries embarking on the hydrogen journey.

IBT: Can you explain how Umagine covers the entire low-carbon hydrogen value chain and its role in decarbonizing industries?

Santosh Gurunath: Umagine’s involvement in the low-carbon hydrogen value chain spans various stages, starting from strategy and policy development to engineering, design, and technology deployment. The company collaborates with state governments and industries to create a conducive policy environment for green hydrogen adoption. This includes providing insights into market dynamics, supply and demand considerations, and technology suitability based on geographical nuances.

In terms of engineering and design, Umagine supports developers in optimizing large-scale green hydrogen projects. The company’s expertise helps in designing projects that maximize the utilization of renewable energy, minimize grid dependence, and ensure economic viability. Umagine’s advisory services extend to safety considerations, ensuring that projects adhere to the highest standards and are cost-effective.

Umagine’s role in the decarbonization of industries involves providing application-specific technology in the form of hydrogen fuel cells. These fuel cells offer clean and sustainable alternatives for stationary power generation, addressing the pollution concerns associated with traditional diesel gensets. By focusing on specific applications, Umagine aims to contribute to the decarbonization efforts in various sectors.

IBT: What challenges has Umagine faced in green and blue hydrogen production?

Santosh Gurunath: Umagine, being a bootstrapped company, faces challenges in navigating the complex landscape of hydrogen production, especially when making a business case for hydrogen remains challenging. The high costs associated with hydrogen production, coupled with cheaper alternatives like natural gas or diesel, pose significant obstacles. While larger companies may allocate specific capital for hydrogen initiatives, bootstrapped entities like Umagine find it challenging to generate revenue from advisory services due to the lack of established business cases for hydrogen projects.

At a production level, challenges in India include optimizing electrolyzer utilization, achieving temporal matching for minimal grid dependence, and addressing supply chain shortages for hydrogen infrastructure. The country needs to build infrastructure for hydrogen production, and Umagine emphasizes the urgency of shifting mindsets from viewing hydrogen as an emergency solution to recognizing it as a commercial opportunity.

Umagine advocates for a bold approach in policy-making, allowing for unconventional strategies and emphasizing the importance of understanding the objectives behind policies. The company stresses the need for a mindset shift in the industry to address the urgency of sustainability and the imperative to act promptly.

IBT: What is Umagine’s vision for shaping the future of sustainable energy in India, and how does it plan to contribute to the ongoing transition?

Santosh Gurunath: Umagine envisions leveraging technology as a catalyst to accelerate India’s transition to sustainable energy. The company is committed to focusing on hydrogen fuel cells, beginning with addressing energy access issues and replacing polluting diesel gensets. The vision involves developing indigenous technologies in India, minimizing dependence on external factors, and contributing to the country’s self-reliance in sustainable energy solutions.

Umagine aims to play a significant role in developing technology that aligns with India’s needs and challenges. By emphasizing the importance of technology and investing in research and development, the company intends to provide solutions that cater to diverse applications, from small-scale residential setups to large-scale grid-level applications.

The vision extends to fostering a sense of urgency and commitment to sustainability, encouraging transparency, and honest leadership. Umagine believes that a mindset shift is crucial to realizing the commercial potential of hydrogen and meeting the challenges of climate change.

IBT: As an entrepreneur, what advice would you offer to aspiring business leaders seeking to make a positive impact on sustainability and innovation in India? Additionally, what suggestions do you have for policymakers to further support this sector?

Santosh Gurunath: Santosh Gurunath: While acknowledging my limited experience as an entrepreneur, I offer a few insights for aspiring business leaders. Firstly, trust the Indian ecosystem, including technology players, manufacturers, and service providers. There is a need to overcome biases and recognize the potential within the country.

Secondly, business leaders should delve into technology and invest in capabilities, labs, and talent. A proactive approach to technology adoption can lead to innovative solutions, moving beyond traditional supply chain models.

Thirdly, leaders must emphasize the urgency of sustainability transparently and honestly. Greenwashing is not only unethical but also impractical given the urgent need for action. True leadership involves aligning company visions and strategies with the imperative for sustainability.

For policymakers, a bolder and more open-minded approach is essential. Policymakers should be willing to embrace unconventional strategies and encourage challenges to the status quo. Additionally, policies need to align with the objectives of sustainability, considering local development and prosperity.

Understanding the “why” of policies and their intended impact is crucial. Policymakers should focus on solving specific challenges and supporting initiatives that contribute to the larger goal of sustainability. Overall, there is a

need for a collaborative effort from both business leaders and policymakers to drive positive change in the sustainability and innovation sectors in India.

Santosh Gurunath has 10+ years of experience across different sectors within the energy landscape – oil & gas, solar energy, EV infrastructure and hydrogen. A chemical engineering graduate from TU Delft in the Netherlands, he has spent his career across the industry with Shell, management consulting with McKinsey and BCG; and as a start-up founder of Umagine since 2019. He has worked in multiple geographies across the Netherlands, Germany, Spain,  Italy, Thailand, US, Qatar, South Africa, and India.

He is very passionate about solving problems within the sustainability domain and has as part of his start-up executed 100+ projects across rooftop solar, EV  charging and hydrogen in the Netherlands and India. For the past 1.5 years, he and his company  Umagine has been primarily focusing on accelerating the low-carbon hydrogen economy by providing advisory services across strategy, policy, technology, engineering, execution and O&M and they aim to  play an instrumental role in developing the hydrogen ecosystem in India and globally.

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