Circular economy: Neeraj Das with Ojas Australia paves the way

By Indira Laisram
Neeraj Das

When Neeraj Das, an electronics and communications engineer, came from India to Australia in 2007 on an employer-sponsored visa for a reputed company, he did not think the honeymoon would last just two years. But came the global financial crisis and the company wound up its Australia operations.

However, in those two years, Das had studied the Australian solar energy market and before he took a dive into another job in that field, he thought why not do something in terms of business. He was aware of the challenges in terms of setting up sales and business development in a relatively new country but still went ahead and set up Ojas Group in 2008.

Today, Ojas Group is one of the rapidly growing companies and listed among the 100 growing companies in Australia, the ranking of which will be published shortly by the Australian Financial Review. “We’ve been listed among 100 fast growing companies which will be published on 26th November. We are in the list, but we don’t know the ranking yet,” says Das.

Das helms Ojas Group, which holds three different entities—Ojas Infrastructure (main work on cable assemblies and solar and wind farms), CabLab (NATA accredited lab, related to testing and certification) and ElecSome (solar panel upcycling plant)—all three complementing each other with their respective services. The group turnover, says Das, is around 20 million dollars.

In more recent news, an innovative project to transform hazardous solar panel waste into value-added materials by Ojas Group in Braeside is one of 10 initiatives to share in a $25 million funding injection from the Morrison Government. The support for Ojas Group includes $3 million to upcycle solar panel waste.

ElecSome’s plant vision

Elecsome, says Das, is the company’s newest project for which they got the grant. The company will be partnering for research with the University of Melbourne and RMIT for the project.

The grant comes at a crucial time when Australia is facing a looming solar waste crisis. According to a CSIRO report citing Clean Energy Regulator data, more than 2.68 million rooftop solar power systems have been installed in Australia in total, as of 31 December 2020.

“There is rooftop installation as well as ground mounting of solar panels,” adds Das. “By 2030, the estimation is that the figures will be touching two billion solar panels from ground mounting in Australia.”

That is where the challenge and the opportunity lay, believes Das.

“If you check all over the world too, there is very little solution for solar panels after they reach their end of life. You get a warranty for about 10-11 years for solar panels if you install them on your rooftop but the design life is 20-25 years. We estimate that it could come quicker than expected. For instance, we have collected roughly 10,000 panels—and some get damaged with weather conditions or technical failure. In Victoria, these are not allowed to be put in landfill so it comes to guys like us,” explains Das.

Das will be focussing on research and commercialisation. “Because solar panels have been designed, say, 25 years ago, the toughest challenge is separating the different components that go into the making of solar panels,” says Das, adding, “Companies are struggling with the separation of the different components, but we have achieved a clean separation.”

Neeraj Das

ElecSome, claims Das, is the first upcycling company of solar panels in Australia. “What differentiates upcycling from recycling is that we are converting the waste in such a way that it can give you higher value. An analogy would be, say, taking a 1980s model BMW and converting it into a super nice convertible racing car—that is upcycling.”

With a pilot plant in Melbourne and a larger full-fledged plant being set up in Kilmany, Gippsland, on a 20-acre land, ElecSome is ready to commission next year. Das knows it is not technological miracle but more plants that are needed to start work. “Because of the lockdown, things got delayed otherwise we were supposed to commission this year end, so next June to September quarter is when we will be commissioning the plant.”

Das has sketched out a plan for putting four plants in Australia along with some mobile plants. Each plant is roughly an eight-million-dollar project. “But we still have time, solar panel is not our problem till 2024-25 as installations started around 2005. So, you will get the first batch of large amounts of panels in 2025. We will recycle from all over Australia.”

Not an odd entry in Australia’s solar energy market, Ojas Group has a dream, the boldness of which is resonating widely. Das also believes in everything local—from products to manufacturing. “That way it also gives us quality control and less uncertainty. You still have a bit of labour cost for which we are working with the government that is very supportive now.”

So, what’s happening with technology in the solar sector right now? “Most probably, you will be using solar panel of 120-180 watt at your rooftop, and each panel you see on the solar farm would be roughly 500 watt. Efficiency is still the same at 18-22 per cent but they are making the panel smaller and powerful—that’s in terms of technology,” says Das.

Neeraj Das

Apart from that there are new advance trackers, which are used to orient a solar photovoltaic panel towards the sun so the panels can get the maximum possible sunlight.

Das says like Europe and other countries where installation of solar panels has saturated, Australia will see that happen in four-five years’ time. What it will then come down to will be operation maintenance and end of life. “But if we have chosen to be a part of this business, then we believe that it is going to be significant and big.”

And how does he rate the debate over solar in the last few years in this country? “Australia has the highest electricity rate in the world. What you pay for the power here is the highest in the world. Australia has met its 2020 target. However, if we want to work towards net zero emission target of 2050, we need to speed up the work. We have a solar meeting every quarter where they are talking about joining forces and putting pressure on the government and incentivise the upcycling as well as the solar industry,” says Das.

Das has his plans firmed for the next few years—ElecSome will come up with similar plants similar like the one he is building in Kilmany, Ojas Infra will continue supplying to wind and solar for bigger and bigger projects and, CabLab will be expanding more testings.

With each of his company on its growth path, Ojas Group seems set to get its fair slice of pie in the approximately 1 trillion-dollar solar energy market.

Check ElecSome brochure here

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