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The British billionaire who rescued the Whyalla steelworks from administration and is spending more than $2bn on clean energy and green steel developments in regional South Australia says most Australians are yet to grasp that solar power is now a cheaper option than new coal-fired electricity.

Sanjeev Gupta, an industrialist whose family-owned GFG Alliance group of companies has been credited with resurrecting Britain’s steel industry, says he considered investing in coal generation in the state’s Upper Spencer Gulf after buying Arrium’s steel mill last year but found solar backed by “firming” storage technologies made better economic sense.

“It’s still everybody’s perception that it is cheaper to make power from coal than it is from renewables, and it is no longer the case,” he told Guardian Australia. “It was the case not long ago, but it’s no longer the case, and we will prove it.”

His comments come as the federal government considers additional support for coal power alongside its proposed national energy guarantee policy. Some Coalition MPs have called for the taxpayers to underwrite or subsidise coal–fired generation.

Gupta’s position is consistent with the Australian energy market operator, which last week released a forecast that found renewable electricity backed by storage and gas would be the lowest cost replacement for the existing coal fleet. The market operator also found it was important to avoid early departures from the electricity grid to ensure an orderly transition.

GFG Alliance’s investment is central to an industrial transformation under way around Port Augusta and Whyalla. Developments proposed for the regional cities include 13 clean energy projects, several of them promising to use unique solar or energy storage technology.

Gupta is making a series of investments as part of his bid to create Australia’s only fully integrated steel business. He bought the Whyalla mill in 2017 when then-owner Arrium was more than $4bn in debt and he is spending at least $1bn doubling its annual output to 2m tonnes. He plans to expand it further using his green steel model – an increased emphasis on recycling scrap steel and heavy investment in clean energy projects close to the plant.

He said the $700m electricity plan he announced last year was likely to end up expanding to about $1.5bn as new projects were included.

Confirmed elements include: two farms of solar photovoltaic panels totalling more than 400MW to both run the steel plant and feed into the national grid; a co-generation plant of about 80MW that would capture the waste gases from steel production and convert them into electricity; up to three pumped hydro plants totalling up to 400MW in disused mining pits in the Middlebank Ranges; a lithium-ion battery larger than that built by Tesla and French company Neoen following a state government tender last year.

Additionally Gupta recently bought the Tahmoor metallurgical coal mine in New South Wales – as an essential ingredient in iron and steel-making, metallurgical coal is expected to have a better long-term economic outlook than thermal coal used in electricity generation – and took a majority share in solar and battery firm Zen Energy, chaired by economist Ross Garnaut.

Gupta said while he believed the long-term future was renewable energy, that alone would not have been enough to persuade him to invest in it.

“If it was cheaper to make new coal plants, I would argue you should invest in that technology… these HELE (high efficiency, low emissions coal) plants are incredibly efficient these days and their emissions are really quite impressive,” he said. “But it should just turn on what’s more competitive. If you can make power from the sort of things that we’re doing and it can compete against a new coal plant, then why would you not do that, right? It’s obvious.”

He said Australia remained well behind other countries in the transition to a cleaner economy, and that its high electricity prices were crippling for industrial players. “There hasn’t been enough investment in new generation [energy] while some older generation has gone away,” he said. “It’s mathematics – there is no rocket science in that.”

Asked why the message that solar with storage could be cheaper was not more broadly understood in Australia, he said: “It’s very new.”

He said until recently solar had been subsidised across the globe but that was no longer the case in many parts of the world, citing India and the Middle East as examples.

Thermal coal would remain a major part of the global energy mix for years to come, he said, taking at least a generation to be phased out, and that managing a transition from fossil fuels was important. But new investments should be forward-looking. “The future is definitely renewable,” he said.

Gupta’s expansion plans are not limited to Australia. He has outlined plans for up to $5bn investment in the US and Canadian steel industries, including re-starting a South Carolina steelworks last month that had been dormant for three years.

Reflecting on why he was investing in a way other businesses had not, Gupta said Australia did not have enough entrepreneurial companies and that large public corporations focused too much on short-term thinking because shareholders expected immediate returns and boards were designed to meet their needs. “It’s not possible to have a three-to-five-year return on solar power,” he said.

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Beyond his existing commitments, Gupta is planning an electric car plant in South Australia or Victoria to produce 30,000 vehicles a year – “It’s 100{0b7da518931e2dc7f5435818fa9adcc81ac764ac1dff918ce2cdfc05099e9974} proceeding but the exact location is still being debated” – and said a proposed copper smelter and refinery for South Australia was at feasibility stage. His Australian steel assets picked up in the Arrium sale also include smaller works in Sydney and Melbourne and a planned new mill in Brisbane. He said all three would produce only recycled steel.

He said the Upper Spencer Gulf was the ideal place to invest as it had access to minerals, one of the best solar load factors in the world, existing electricity transmission infrastructure, a port that could potentially be expanded, what could become an international airport and room for its regional cities to grow. “It’s all there already, waiting to be exploited,” he said.

Pressed on the state of energy policy and debate in Canberra, Gupta said he did not like to participate in political debate. “Whatever can be done to help with this transition I would welcome with open arms, but even if nothing is done we will still make investments. We may make less investments, we may do it slower, but we will still do it anyway because it’s doable,” he said.

“Of course, if you have the right tailwind and don’t have a headwind then of course you can do more and you can go faster, and you can do grander and bigger, which is what we would like to do, but it’s not a real issue for us. We will do it anyway.”

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