Representative photo: Asia Chang/Unsplash
Chandigarh: India’s energy requirements are spiking. Electricity consumption has more than doubled since the year 2000. And this trend is only likely to continue.
India’s latest National Electricity Plan (NEP), notified in May this year, projected that the country would need installed capacity of 900 gigawatts by March 2032 from the current 399 GW capacity (March 2022) to meet its rapid electricity demand.
But the major focus of the NEP is the way electricity will be produced in the coming decade. Anticipating a major change in the energy basket in India, the NEP says that the share of fossil-based power generation will come down from the current 61% (March 2022) to 34% by March 2032.
In contrast, renewable energy will dominate the country’s electricity generation, with solar energy playing a vital role in meeting the country’s rapidly growing power demand.
The NEP envisages an almost 700% growth in the solar energy sector in India in a decade: from the existing production capacity of 54 GW to a whopping 365 GW in 2032.
This means that 40% of the country’s installed capacity will be from solar power. Apart from this, other sources of non-fossil based renewable energy sources like wind, biomass and hydro will play an important role, taking its overall share in India’s energy basket from the current 40% to 66% in 2032 (see box).
But given that solar power will play a huge role in India’s energy needs, how equitable and green is it? While India’s solar growth, as experts say, looks buoyant, questions are being raised about the way the sector is expanding, and whether that is in conflict with land, forest and community rights.
Experts pointed to a lack of proper regulation and availability of land suitable for big solar projects as potential reasons for growing conflicts. There are other supply related and grid connectivity challenges too. There is also growing scepticism about whether the targets fixed in the NEP are achievable.
Currently, big utility projects are at the heart of solar expansion in India, which according to many experts is not the best way forward. The focus has to be on decentralised solar projects, they say, which can ensure inclusive growth and also lead to job creation opportunities in remote areas.
Is the NEP target too ambitious?
Like other countries, electricity generation is the biggest driver of India’s carbon emissions, ranked third in the global list, due to its reliance on coal-based power plants.
The NEP says that the projection of total capacity addition is in line with the target of the country to achieve a non-fossil based installed capacity of around 500 GW by the year 2029-30, as one of the major ways to decarbonise its economy to fight climate change.
There was record expansion of renewable energy throughout the world last year. India is no different; the NEP claims that solar projects for as much as 92 GW are already under construction and likely to be completed by 2027.
But at the same time, the NEP adds that the funds required to achieve the target fixed in the report is Rs 15 lakh crore for solar along – and an overall Rs 33 lakh crore if all other energy sources are added.
Commenting upon the report, Ashok Sreenivas, senior fellow at the Pune-based energy research group Prayas, told The Wire that if the projects are bankable, raising the finances may not be so difficult. However, the sheer scale of the capacity addition envisaged in the NEP is challenging and ambitious.
He said the renewable energy sector in India is very vibrant and competitive. There is encouragement for decentralised renewable energy projects like rooftop solar panels, and there is scope for this segment to grow much more.
“But large and centralised renewable energy projects are definitely land-intensive and sensitive policies are required to ensure that this does not affect local communities negatively,” said Sreenivas.
On the other hand, Akanksha Tyagi, programme associate, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a Delhi-based think-tank, believes that targets in the NEP are very much achievable.
The Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy issued a trajectory for bidding 50 GW of RE capacity every year from financial year 2023-24 to financial year 27-28, she said.
She, however, said some prominent challenges the sector faces today are the supply of solar cells and modules due to the supply chain constraints and steep demand increase, access to evacuation infrastructure for renewable energy generation, enabling cost effective integration of renewable energy with the grid, and then land acquisition challenges.
“These challenges are typically outside the purview of planning studies like NEP and must be addressed separately through policy interventions,” she added.
Where is inclusive growth?
The cases of land conflicts and alleged marginalisation of rural communities are growing as big solar projects are being mooted in several states.
For instance, in Gujarat’s famous solar village of Mehsana district, several villagers lost pastoral land. In another case, farmers are protesting against the setting up of a 100 MW solar power plant in Maharastra’s Nandgaon taluka in Nashik district as the project took over 300 acres of agricultural lands in the ‘Reserve Forest’ that they were tilling for years.
In India’s biggest 2 GW solar project in Karnataka’s Pavagada area, local communities still await jobs promised to them. In Tamil Nadu’s Tiruppur district, there is unrest among 500 farmers over losing their agriculture land due to laying of high tension power cables to supply electricity generated by a wind project in Rasipalayam village in Tiruppur’s Dharapuram taluk.
In Rajasthan – which is the leading state in the country both in terms of installed projects and generation capacity – the situation is no different.
Environmental activist from Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer Sumer Singh Bhatti told The Wire that western Rajasthan – comprising Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Bikaner and Barmer – are witnessing an expansion of solar power. In a way, he said, this area has become the hub of India’s solar industry.
“We understand that clean energy is important to fight climate change but it should not be installed at the cost of ecological damage and the livelihood of local communities,” he said
He said a large number of people in western Rajasthan are dependent on agro-pastoralism. Breeding animals like camels, sheep and goats is their main source of income. Jaisalmer alone has a population of over 40,000 camels.
But in the recent past, huge tracts of land on which they were long dependent for grazing their animals were diverted for solar projects, thereby affecting their livelihood, said Bhatti.
Most projects came up on government land, while some individual land was also taken on lease. The private owners, mostly farmers, did not get much benefit divesting their land for these projects, he said.
“We held several rallies in the past two years and gave a memorandum to all the important people, but policies of the state have not changed yet,” he added.
Sumit Dookia, assistant professor at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Delhi, who is currently studying the impact of solar expansion in western Rajasthan, told The Wire that there are places like Fatehgarh in Jaisalmer district where as much as 80% of the grazing land has been taken over by big solar projects, thereby putting the lives of agro-pastoral communities at risk.
All this was done systematically, starting with bringing a large chunk of pastoral land under the category of waste land in the beginning of 2004 in order to create a land bank for industrial development. Later this land bank was used for renewable energy expansion.
Dookia said that not only were the lives of local communities affected because of large scale solar projects, local ecology too has suffered. In desert areas, there are patches of vegetation which play a biodiversity role. They are called orans or sacred groves, protected by local communities for centuries. “They too suffered due to big solar projects here,” he added
Dookia also said that water bodies are under threat. In several places, catchment areas of water bodies were taken over by solar projects, thereby disturbing the flow of rainfall and raising a big question on their future sustainability, he added.
A 2021 study by a consortium of public advocacy groups in India had also focused on increasing ecological and social vulnerabilities as a result of big solar and wind energy projects.
According to the report, large solar projects also created a potential risk of gender discrimination that limited women’s ownership and access to land, leading to greater risk of inequitable compensation and engagement.
Bypassing of key regulations a major concern: Expert
Bhargavi Rao, who is senior fellow at the Bengaluru-based Environment Support Group which works on a variety of environmental and social justice initiatives, told The Wire that large-scale land acquisition for infrastructure projects in India attracts the provisions of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement Act 2013.
This law requires assessing land acquisition proposals in public hearings, consent and rehabilitation of affected communities, as well as social and environmental impact assessments.
But this law was hardly invoked for procuring land for any big solar project. The states either gave a free run to private developers to buy private land under the garb of a lease agreement or transferred government land and common panchayat land while categorising it as waste land, thereby affecting the livelihood of poor communities historically dependent on these lands, said Rao.
Rao then said that the Union environment ministry in 2012 also removed the need for solar power projects in the country to conduct environment impact assessments beforehand, citing it as a green industry.
Such a procedure is made mandatory so that big projects do not adversely impact the environment. “But as a result of the exemption, solar parks were allowed to be set up near water bodies, forest areas and natural habitats of endangered animals,” she said.
Citing an example, she said in Rajasthan one big solar project was stayed by the high court in suo moto proceedings in view of the environmental damage and ecological imbalance it was causing.
Solar project even posed a risk to the natural habitat of endangered birds like the Great Bustard in Rajasthan and Gujarat, she added.
She said, “In search of alternative energy sources, we can’t kill livelihood sources of poor communities.”
Moreover, the number of jobs created is not as high as is often propagated while pushing renewable energy projects. In the Pavagada project, for example, not more than 2,500-3,000 people got jobs, against the use of 13,000 acres of land. An acre otherwise creates jobs for at least four people in the rural economy, she said.
A 2021 study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) estimated that solar and wind power infrastructure could together occupy 65,000 to 95,000 sq km of land by 2050, which is 1.97-2.88% of India’s total landmass of 3.28 million sq km.
This is likely to more possible land conflicts during the development of renewable energy plants.
What should be done?
Akanksha Tyagi of CEEW told The Wire that big solar projects, like any infrastructure, can impact the local ecology.
“As a first step to examining and mitigating these impacts, Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) studies should be mandated for large-scale renewable energy projects. These studies will guide the development of an Environment and Social Management Plan to mitigate the identified impact on the local environment and society,” she said.
According to her, currently, renewable energy projects are exempted from these studies in India. However, some international financiers do necessitate ESIA studies for their projects based on the available frameworks such as performance standards, equator principles, etc.
Saksham Nijhawan, principal sustainability strategist at Forum for the Future, one of the core partners on the Responsible Energy Initiative in India, told The Wire that India must embrace responsible renewable energy with participatory governance as its core principal, among others.
He said there is an opportunity for India to be a global pioneer in creating a renewable energy sector that sets up the right mechanisms from the get-go, and to demonstrate how we can build a resilient, thriving future.
“But a responsible renewable energy sector needs stakeholders across the sector in India and beyond to work together collaboratively. It is important to recognise the critical role policy and regulation play, not only in building a favourable ecosystem for consistent renewable energy deployment, but also to be done in a way that is socially just and environmentally safe,” he said.
‘Focus must be on decentralised growth’
Solar is expanding in two ways in India. First is through grid connected large utility scale big solar projects, which is driving major solar expansion in India and fuelling conflicts.
Second, it is through decentralised solar expansion which includes rooftop solar and off-grid solar schemes like solar pumps, or other utility schemes in areas where grid connectivity is not available or unreliable.
Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, a global network of 1,900 civil society organisations, told The Wire that centralised grid based power projects, which have long dominated our energy landscape, are not always capable of catering to dispersed rural communities or withstanding the escalating impacts of extreme weather events.
Hence, there’s a growing need for a shift from centralised big solar park projects to decentralised, community-owned renewable energy systems. These systems not only enhance access to energy but also encourage local job creation, spur innovation and foster community resilience, he said.
“The future of solar energy in India should not just be about scaling up capacity, but also about scaling out – increasing access and ownership across communities and empowering individuals at the grassroots level,” he added.
There are already examples of how decentralised solar systems like solar pumps benefited farmers in drought-hit areas and also created new opportunities for employment in rural areas, without putting pressure on land and other natural resources
But the target growth of decentralised solar in overall solar expansion is poor. A recent parliamentary committee report revealed that against the overall target of 40 GW by 2022, only 7.40 GW of rooftop solar projects could be installed in the country.
The non-availability of information at the grassroots level, lack of awareness about this scheme amongst the masses, apathy of discoms, among others, are the reasons the committee observed.
Rooftop solar installation is eight times more labour intensive than utility scale big solar systems, revealed a study by the CEEW that Tyagi quoted.
Simran Grover, head of the Jaipur-based Centre for Energy, Environment and People, which works on energy and climate governance, told The Wire that subsidies and incentives have greatly distorted India’s solar growth journey, disproportionately favouring centralised large deployments.
Grover said a seemingly positive outcome of this approach is cheap power purchase agreements, an absolute measure of policy success. However, there are many hidden costs of large-scale solar.
For instance, transmission losses are not accounted for, and nor do we account for the cost of environmental exemptions to wind and solar energy, he said.
He added, “We have to consciously rethink our solar policies and incentives to balance the markets and shift the balance towards decentralised deployment of solar. This shall require thinking beyond rooftop solar and enabling every village in the country to become a solar village.”