“The biggest challenge in solar projects across India is acquisition of land, connectivity and uncertainty of regulatory framework”- Faizur Rehman, Partner-Corporate, Energy & Projects at AKS Partners

This Interview has been published by Pragya Chandni and The SuperLawyer Team

Can you walk us through your journey from being an in-house counsel and company secretary to becoming a business leader and now a practicing lawyer specializing in energy and infrastructure?

Yes, it has been an exciting journey so far. I started as company secretary and became in-house counsel and later on appointed as Head Legal in Fortum India. I had to set up legal, compliance and secretarial practice for businesses ranging from solar & wind projects, acquisition cases for hydro power, waste to energy and laying out EV charging infrastructure. It was a big shift from my earlier role in Schneider Electric and previous organisations. Fortum was a leadership position and businesses were new sun rising sectors in India, like solar and wind, EV, and biorefinery. Regulations are still evolving, hence, I have to push myself beyond legal knowledge, to acquire business and market understanding, which can help me in providing seamless legal support for business growth. I got opportunities for working on land acquisitions, regulatory approvals, funding of projects, selling of assets and a lot of drafting and contracting. All of this developed my understanding of capturing business true intentions into a legal paper and maybe, I started feeling more comfortable with business leadership. 

After 6 years of leading legal function, got the responsibility as Country Director & Business Head for leading Biorefinery business (or Bio2X as Fortum calls it). It was a completely different role and I have to broaden my thinking. From finding flaws and identifying risks in business proposals, I have to find solutions, resolve issues and manage a big Joint Venture. Completely different work, but I believe my capability of learning fast, with legal knowledge, sector expertise and understanding of board practices helps me. 

When last year, I joined AKS, as Partner-corporate, energy and projects, I believed that I am perfectly placed to advise my clients with the highest level of legal services and work with required domain expertise of energy sector as well as of projects. I understand the perspective of the in-house team, their business requirements and how to address matters in the energy sector. 

Your career has seen you working with esteemed organizations like Schneider Electric, Hero Group, and Fortum India. How have these experiences influenced your approach to legal practice?

I started my career with a couple of Indian promoters driven by mid-size companies and from the last 15 years worked for MNCs like Schneider Electric and Fortum. In mid-size companies, you have opportunities for growing beyond your key responsibility areas, as all the functions are not hard lined. If you have desire, you may take up tasks beyond your key role and that will prove vital for my growth. 

While working in MNCs you learn the importance of good corporate governance and putting statutory compliances in place. Working with different jurisdiction lawyers helps you sharpen your skills, and gives you a different perspective of thinking about the same issue. Also, I understood how “LESS IS MORE”. How I can plan and strategize my work to become more effective. Like, a legal document need not be lengthy, but sufficient enough to capture business understanding and required legal provisions.

 Your expertise spans a wide range of areas within the energy sector, including renewable energy, EV charging infrastructure, and biofuels. What drew you to specialize in these specific niches?

Frankly speaking, when I was joining Schneider in 2009, I was going for a big MNC job, without much understanding of a sector specialisation etc. But, as it happened, a lot of contracts, transactions and legal work came through the energy and infra sector, which started developing my interest in this industry. Big opportunity came for me, in the form of a Fortum leadership position in legal, a decade ago. Fortum came to India, with the ambition of replicating their European businesses of Hydro, Nuclear, Waste to Energy etc. As a Legal Head, I had to gather all the possible knowledge and expertise of the sectors my organization was working. This leads to learning and research into specialised fields like EV charging infra, solar & wind, nuclear etc. For a sector, which is developing, you need to be very close to business and keep yourself updated with the latest happenings in the sector.

Could you share some insights into the process of establishing groundbreaking joint ventures like the one between Fortum & Chempolis and Numaligarh Refinery Limited for the 2G Ethanol Bio Refinery in Assam?

This one is special, real hard work, not only from legal, but for developing a business case to create a Joint Venture for setting up the first of its kind bio refinery in the world. JV was bringing new technology in India, which was developed in Finland by a company called Chempolis. I was tasked to work on Joint Venture from a legal perspective, and got so involved that I was entrusted with responsibility of leading Joint Venture as Director and key member in high powered committees. 

Beautiful learning experiences, working between Indian and European Jurisdiction for technology transfer, IPR protection, funding and governance. With the opportunity of developing relationships with industry leaders, learning the whole business ecosystem. Understanding significance of proper documentation, drafting of contracts, resolving disputes along with true understanding of risk identification and mitigation from ground and not only on papers.

With your extensive experience in setting up solar projects across multiple states in India, what are some of the key challenges you’ve faced in navigating the regulatory landscape and securing investments for such projects?

The biggest challenge in solar projects across India is acquisition of land, connectivity and uncertainty of regulatory framework. With resolving these three important factors, India will achieve ambitious targets of renewable energy. In one of the projects, between the stage of LOI to signing of PPA, Govt. levied safeguard duty on import of solar panels. Of course, it was covered under Change in Law, but sudden policy changes create hurdles for investments and pose challenges from a legal perspective.  

As someone deeply involved in the energy industry, how do you see the role of startups and new technology collaborations shaping the future of energy production and distribution?

It’s like selecting a cricket team. You need a mix of experience and youth to win a championship. If we are looking to solve the biggest challenge of global warming, while keeping the economic pace of India, we require a lot of new technologies and Startups that bring us close to a circular economy. We need new technology in developing green hydrogen, producing batteries with material available in India, utilising biowaste, etc. Without embracing new technologies, we will miss our targets. I personally believe, new technologies with small companies in Europe and other innovative jurisdictions, have great possibility of commercial success with Indian PSUs & Corporate houses. Likewise, India is also becoming a Startups hub and a lot of promising developments are happening. 

In fact, we at AKS Partners, have a key focus for startups, either Indian or International for providing them, specially designed legal services and in some cases, maybe beyond legal, like connecting right industry players, some funding opportunities with our connection in the sector.       

You’ve been actively involved in various industry forums and committees, including serving as a member of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) National Committee on Bioenergy. How has your participation in these groups enriched your understanding of the sector?

Absolutely, it has been a pleasure and privilege to be part of these committees and various similar forums, wherein, I got a chance to put my ideas and perspective and educate myself with experiences shared by other leaders. These platforms, like CII National Committee on bioenergy are good forums to deliberate and exchange ideas and make recommendations to the Government for sector growth. In fact, these things prepare you, what is the upcoming trend in the sector. 

Lastly, drawing from your journey and expertise, what advice would you give to fresh graduates aspiring to build a career in law, particularly in specialized fields like energy and infrastructure?

First of all, the Indian economy is growing at an unprecedented pace, along with the aspiration of its people and living standards are rising. We are consuming more energy for home appliances, vehicles, data centres, houses, malls, etc. Therefore, the energy sector is going to rise in India. Solar, wind, green hydrogen, electric vehicles will take centre stage, but traditional sources will continue playing their part like Coal, Oil & Gas, etc.  

To become a specialist in the energy sector, we need to understand the industry in detail. Energy sector is a highly regulated and capital-intensive business. For our clients, or for our organisations, if we are in-house counsel, we need to keep in mind that we are just a notification away from becoming a viable project to unviable business. Therefore, best practices, challenges of the sector, contentious areas and keeping a pace with regulatory development is a must for the energy sector.

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