How Bala Vinayagam Of Microgrid Line of Business at Schneider Electric Is Helping to Promote Sustainability and Climate Justice
An Interview With Monica Sanders
Surround yourself by people you can learn from- answer to include diversity of the team from different backgrounds, different passions and different industries. This brings new fresh ideas and that is vital to solving complex problems. Being able to create teams here at Schneider that include people from all over the world and from many diverse backgrounds is a celebration on its own and I believe has led to our success in advancing complex solutions.
According to the University of Colorado, “Those who are most affected and have the fewest resources to adapt to climate change are also the least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions — both globally and within the United States.” Promoting climate justice is an incredibly important environmental responsibility that is slowly becoming more and more recognized. In this interview series, we are talking to leaders who are helping to promote sustainability and climate justice. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Bala Vinayagam.
Bala Vinayagam is the Senior Vice President of the Microgrid Line of Business Division at Schneider Electric. His passion lies in advancing innovation and digital technology in the electric power industry — especially within protection, monitoring, automation, and control of the electric grid, from substations to enterprise.
He has held a diverse set of global senior leadership roles both at General Electric and in Schneider Electric with functional expertise in Product Management, Strategic Marketing, Sales and Commercial Operations.
He earned a B.Tech. in Electronics and Electrical Engineering at Pondicherry University, Puducherry, India; a M.Sc. in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan; and a Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Western University, Canada.
In addition to his “day job,” he enjoys working toward making workplaces more equitable and accommodating by creating and fostering an inclusive environment beyond gender and ethnic diversity. He also enjoys birding, trekking, hiking, and reading — he strives to read 50 books a year.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I was born in a small city called Pondicherry in India, the fourth and youngest one in the family, with three wonderful sisters and a mother who was my biggest inspiration. My parents were determined that all their children would receive a good education, even though it was a privilege that few could afford in those times. I excelled in math and physics and was inspired to pursue a career in electrical engineering by a friend’s father, a professor of physics and nuclear science.
When the dot-com bubble and Y2K pushed more offshoring of software development to India, many of my friends moved into the software industry. However, I decided to follow my passion for electrical engineering. I worked for Alstom Limited for three years, and then came to Canada to pursue a master’s and doctoral degree in the field I loved.
Everyone has a cataclysmic moment or marker in their life which propels them to take certain actions, a “why”. What is your why?
I have had many inflection points in my life, some small and incremental, others large and life-changing. If I had to choose one inflection point that had the profound impact on me in the last ten years, it would be my ten-year-old son, who has Asperger’s syndrome.
My son has a passion for animals and birds, especially prehistoric ones. He is a big advocate of preserving the complex ecosystems where all species can thrive. He has been teaching himself these topics since he was very young, and he often asks me questions about extinction, species vulnerability, and endangerment. He convinces me every time why I should not be killing the weeds and cut my lawn because it diminishes bio diversity.
My son’s passion for animals and his questions about extinction have made me see sustainability in a new light. I have always been concerned about the environment, but my son has helped me to understand the urgency of the issue. He has shown me that we are losing species at an alarming rate, and that we need to take action to protect our planet.
One day, I was telling my son about my philosophy of diversity and inclusion. I said, “Everyone is different, but they are all equally valuable.” My son corrected me and said, “Every species is different, but they are all equally valuable on our beautiful planet.”
My son’s words had a profound impact on me. I realized that I had been thinking about diversity and inclusion in terms of humans, but that my son was right: all species are equally valuable. This realization has inspired me to make a difference in the world.
I now work in a job that helps customers achieve their decarbonization goals. I believe that this is a small way that I can help to protect our planet for future generations. I am grateful for my son, who has taught me the importance of sustainability and diversity.
You are currently leading an organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change?
I lead a start-up business inside Schneider Electric that focuses on providing sustainable and resilient energy to our customers to achieve their decarbonization goals. But the overall mission for SE as an organization is bigger than this.
At Schneider Electric we firmly believe that the recipe for a more sustainable and resilient world; one that is more electric and more digital. We as a company are uniquely positioned to help our customers on their journey to become net zero leaders in sustainability. They are adopting an integrated approach: they strategize, they digitize and they decarbonize as a result of target setting and execution. To be able to deliver results in line with their climate ambition, we have all the tools that we need and the moment is NOW.
Over the last year, it’s become clear that we are simultaneously facing an energy crisis and a climate crisis. Energy prices in Europe have skyrocketed, soaring to 24 times that of 2 years prior, and demands to limit use are forcing companies and governments to rethink energy management with more urgency.
At the same time, we must accelerate decarbonization efforts to bring us within reach of the 1.5-degree threshold set by the IPCC. The projected temperature increase of 4–6 degrees would have devastating impacts on human life and the world as we know it, leading to drought, famine, and increased natural disasters.
To limit temperature increase to only 1.5 degrees, we must accelerate decarbonization efforts and go 3 times faster to meet our 2050 goal. And progress is being made. Global commitments from over 70 countries and 4,400 companies have put us on a pathway to reduce global warming down to 2.5 degrees. But it’s still not enough to get us to where we need to be, and even 1 degree of difference can mean catastrophic consequences.
The convergence of the energy crisis and the climate crisis bring us to an inflection point where we need to balance short-term priorities and long-term targets. The solution to how we mitigate the impacts of both is tied to our use of energy.
On the demand side, we can reduce energy waste and create efficiencies to address the energy crisis, while on the supply side, we can electrify and replace current fuel-combustion energy with renewables to make energy clean.
Electricity 4.0 is our vision to help our customers get their buildings net zero ready. With the combination of digitalization and electrification, we can collectively reach net-zero. Digitalization allows buildings to utilize the Internet of Things, big, data, and AI to provide insight into real-time information and opportunities for improvement. While Electrification enables decarbonization of buildings by removing sources of direct CO2 emissions.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I was exhausted after a long week of meetings in Dallas with my team last August. I was looking forward to getting home to Boston, but I was dreading the long flight in a cramped economy seat. However, a casual conversation with the people seated next to me made my next four hours inspiring. Both in their early twenties, they were passionate about making a difference in the world. One was an environmental activist working to preserve biodiversity, and the other was a biotech startup founder. I was inspired by their energy and enthusiasm, and I felt a renewed sense of purpose in my own work.
It was a reminder that the future is in good hands. When you see young people taking control and making a difference, it’s hard not to be optimistic about the future. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have met these two young people, and I’m excited to see what they accomplish in the years to come.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I have been fortunate to have many people in my life who have lifted me up and provided guidance. The first one is my mother who is a constant inspiration to me. She is always calm and collected, no matter what life throws her way. She is also incredibly resilient, and she has always taught me to never give up on my dreams.
The second one is a great friend, mentor and a colleague. He is a brilliant businessman, but he is also a kind and compassionate person. He has always been there for me, both professionally and personally. He is a true friend and mentor, and I am so grateful for his guidance. One piece of advice that he gave me early in my career has stayed with me ever since. He said, “It is more important to win people with your heart than with your mind.” This simple statement has had a profound impact on the way I approach leadership. I now believe that the most effective leaders are those who are able to connect with people on a personal level. They are able to build relationships based on trust and respect, and they are able to inspire others to follow them.
I am grateful for the many people who have helped me along the way. I know that I would not be where I am today without their support.
Thank you for that. Let’s now move to the central part of our discussion. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms so that everyone is on the same page. What does climate justice mean to you? How do we operationalize it?
- Climate change is a global problem, but it is not affecting everyone equally. The most vulnerable communities are those that are already marginalized, such as Indigenous peoples, people of color, and low-income communities. These are the people least responsible for green house gas emissions and they will not have the resources to fight and adapt for climate change.
- Climate change is already having a devastating impact on these communities, and it is only going to get worse if we do not take action. These communities are experiencing more extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts, and wildfires. They are also facing food insecurity, water scarcity, and health problems.
- We need to take action to address climate change, and we need to do it in a way that is just and equitable. We need to make sure that the most vulnerable communities are not left behind.
- There are a number of things that we can do to address climate change in a just and equitable way. We can invest in renewable energy, we can improve energy efficiency, we can protect our forests, and we can help communities adapt to the impacts of climate change.
- Microgrids & integration of renewables on an even greater scale than today will ultimately help meet some aspects of climate justice. While this is a very complex problem, I can only address the ability for decarbonization to have impact.
- The ability to operationalize this more is two-fold, development of more advanced systems and software integration with the grid and the ability to grow and upskill new workforce to accelerate this. The development and deployment of microgrids and electrification technologies can create jobs in the clean energy sector. These jobs can provide economic opportunities.
- We need to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table when it comes to addressing climate change. We need to listen to the voices of the most vulnerable communities, and we need to make sure that their needs are met.
- Other ways that I see climate justice being met is through efforts of energy inequity initiatives, like how recently the The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved rules for a new Microgrid Incentive Program which is a is a $200 million initiative to support the development of community microgrids in disadvantaged and vulnerable communities.
Science is telling us that we have 7–10 years to make critical decisions about climate change. What are three things you or your organization are doing to help?
The technology to bring buildings forward on the path to net-zero already exist and is being implemented in many retrofits and new builds today.
It starts with 3 main steps that help to bridge ambition and action.
- In Strategize, building stakeholders develop a robust plan for how to reach net-zero. It’s about understanding where we are today, where we want to be tomorrow, and outlining what we need to do to get from here to there. It requires a holistic view across the entire value chain (scope 1, 2 and 3).
- The Digitize stage is all about modernizing outdated and manual technology with smart hardware and software that can collect and visualize building energy data for informed decision-making.
- Finally, in the last step, we are acting based on our roadmap and digital insights to reduce energy and carbon, electrify operations, replace energy sources, and decarbonize the building.
Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you in your mission?
- Educate themselves and others about climate change. The more people who understand the problem, the more likely we are to find solutions.
- Support policies that promote decarbonization. This includes things like carbon pricing, renewable energy standards, and energy efficiency regulations.
- Make small steps in understanding the right path toward decarbonization and experience the great work and strides that have already been taken. We often invite politicians and leaders to tour our facilities and customer project sites to really understand first-hand the impacts that can be made.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
- Action towards sustainability will be very relevant when the ability to reduce carbon, electrify meet not only sustainability interests, but financial needs as well. We have the solutions today to do this.
- The ability to leverage onsite renewables with battery storage to save on peak demand costs.
- Solutions that create a grid-interactive building that provides monetary inventive to deliver flexibility to the grid.
- And other programs like buyback.
- Avoidance of loss revenue during grid outages and downtime inefficiencies of operational costs.
This is the signature question we ask in most of our interviews. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started promoting sustainability and climate justice” and why?
- Celebrate the small wins- many of the BIG impacts we can make towards sustainability take massive amounts of time, collaboration and even regulation or policy, so it’s important to celebrate the small wins along the way.
- Get inspired wherever possible — Sometimes, it’s the small wins, and those are things that can be inspiring. Small ideas lead to big results. One example is with the work of the Footprint Project. They took the small need for renewable energy during times of crisis and outages and solved the problem. Something as simple as providing power after a disaster for simple things like restorage needs, charging cell phones, etc.
- Lean into technology- the advancement that we want to achieve in the future isn’t just around better adoption and use of renewables or implementing cleaner sources on the grid. It’s going to depend on how we can better advance the technology to design intelligent bi-directional systems & grids. For instance, the technology to really leverage and capitalize on distributed renewable energy resources have so much growth potential and it will take the use of intelligent systems to coordinate and respond to the demands of the new energy landscape, compared to the 1-way flow from power plan to building. …..Maybe share story about initial career & interest in AI- and now how you see it coming into your work- like through advanced modeling and testing for new standardization OR AI for predictive modeling in microgrid software
- Surround yourself by people you can learn from- answer to include diversity of the team from different backgrounds, different passions and different industries. This brings new fresh ideas and that is vital to solving complex problems. Being able to create teams here at Schneider that include people from all over the world and from many diverse backgrounds is a celebration on its own and I believe has led to our success in advancing complex solutions.
- Share & be open- much of our innovation and great ideas have come from being able to cross-share ideas and challenges across not only teams here at Schneider, but with other stakeholders in the industry. Some of the best conversations that I have are during opportunities at industry events where I can validate challenges and hear about other angles to solve.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 😊
So many activists, scientist and the business leaders who truly carry the torch of sustainability and making things happen. As I interact and observe one thing is clear, it is women all over the world who are in the fore front of leading the environmental revolution. If I have to pick it will be Jane Goodall and Richard Attenborough, both of whom have tirelessly worked for decades to educate people about the beauty of the natural world and the need to save the environment and the animals that coexist with humans. And by the way, my son would like to join as well 😊
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
- Blog series — https://blog.se.com/ or https://blog.se.com/author/bala-vinayagam/
- LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/bala-vinayagam-a2254710/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
About the Interviewer: Monica Sanders JD, LL.M, is the founder of “The Undivide Project”, an organization dedicated to creating climate resilience in underserved communities using good tech and the power of the Internet. She holds faculty roles at the Georgetown University Law Center and the Tulane University Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy. Professor Sanders also serves on several UN agency working groups. As an attorney, Monica has held senior roles in all three branches of government, private industry, and nonprofits. In her previous life, she was a journalist for seven years and the recipient of several awards, including an Emmy. Now the New Orleans native spends her time in solidarity with and championing change for those on the frontlines of climate change and digital divestment. Learn more about how to join her at: www.theundivideproject.org.
How Bala Vinayagam Of Microgrid Line of Business at Schneider Electric Is Helping to Promote… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.