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India’s Plans Are Shifting Conflict From Coal Plants To Clean Energy Projects

India’s Plans Are Shifting Conflict From Coal Plants To Clean Energy Projects

India has a target of 60,000 MW of wind power by 2022. Photo: PlaneMad/Wikimedia Commons

The Indian government has identified about 10,800 square kilometres of land across seven states to develop wind parks or wind-solar hybrid parks totalling about 54,000 MW. But the proposed policy for such parks is largely silent about concerns related to the environment, land and communities that are increasingly gaining the centre stage and impacting projects worth billions.

On November 13, Indian government’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) made public a concept note on ‘Development of wind parks/wind-solar hybrid parks’ and sought comments and views from stakeholders including other Central government ministries, the Central Electricity Authority, state governments, power distribution companies, and wind power developers by November 28.

The proposal has identified the availability of 10,789 square kilometres land at 19 sites in seven states (Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana) that has the potential for installation of 53,945 MW renewable power capacity – with parks the size of at least 500 megawatts (MW) size each. But it clarified that it is an indicative list only and states may decide to develop such wind parks or solar parks at other feasible locations.

The proposal clarified that parks of lower capacity may also be developed depending upon the availability of land and resource but even then the capacity of each park shall “not be less than 50 MW” and said, “park developers may also be allowed to pool small investor into the single park.”

The proposal to develop such parks come while India is racing to achieve a target of installing 175,000 MW of renewable energy power by 2022, a commitment it made as part of its global climate goals. At present, India’s installed renewable energy capacity is about 89,635 MW only which means that in the next two years India needs to nearly double it to achieve the required target.

But India is lagging behind the target of 40,000 MW of rooftop solar – which was the vital part of the 175,000 MW target. In such a scenario, the government is probably looking at developing large solar parks and wind parks to bridge the gap. Recently, the government in Gujarat cleared land allotment of about 60,000 hectares in Kutch region for the development of 41,500 MW mega solar and wind energy park that is estimated to attract investment of around Rs 1.35 trillion.

Also Read: As Lockdown Hits India’s Renewables Target, How Will Govt. Bounce Back?

In 2015, under its international climate change commitments, India had promised to cut down its emissions intensity by 33-35% by 2030 and have 40% of its power, around 350,000 MW installed capacity, from renewable power.

Thus India’s ambitious pursuit of clean energy transition is in line with that plan but what is probably missing is proper environmental and social impact assessment of the green energy plans to understand its impact on the environment and communities. For instance, one major complaint against the rapid clean energy transition is that it is usurping fertile agricultural land and massively impacting avifauna.

Representative image of a coal power plant. Photo: Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Land remains a critical concern for solar and wind parks

Justifying this latest proposal of developing wind parks or hybrid solar-wind parks, the MNRE noted that even though a series of steps have been taken to promote large scale wind, solar and wind-solar hybrid power projects issues like “land and transmission” of power are plaguing their growth.

“While solar power project is commissioned on contiguous land, the wind power project requires scattered land on footprint basis which not only increases the transmission cost but also increases the possibility of land-related issues. These challenges and uncertainties have raised the concerned of investors in the sector,” the ministry said.

Emphasising that this new scheme could help overcome such challenges, the ministry explained such parks will be a “concentrated zone of development of wind/wind-solar hybrid power projects” and will provide an area that has “proper infrastructure including evacuation facilities in place and where the risk of the projects can be minimised.”

“Wind energy park will provide a plug and play solution (availability of land, transmission, necessary infrastructure and necessary approvals) to the investors for installing wind/ wind-solar power projects,” the ministry said.

“India’s targets are massive and wholly unrealistic, but if pressed will lead to substantial adverse impacts on the environment and communities living around such developments. Moreover, the huge amount of renewable capacity installed doesn’t translate into the power generated by those renewable power projects – so what matters is the efficiency of such projects and not the installed capacity,” Lisa Linowes, who is co-chair of the United States-based Wildlife Energy and Community Coalition (WECC), told Mongabay-India.

WECC is an alliance of grassroots environmental and community organisations, scientists, and conservationists working to protect communities and wildlife threatened by irresponsible energy development. The advocacy group says it seeks to alert about the “environmental consequences of renewables” and support “communities fighting industrial-scale renewable energy projects” but claim they do no “accept and have never accepted, any funding from any energy company, investor, union, or any other entity.” It also specifies that “some of WECC’s members are pro-nuclear, others are pro-natural gas.”

“The questions that need to be answered before India pursues such a massive renewable programme involving huge solar and wind parks are – whether there is sufficient available land, whether comprehensive environmental impact assessments are conducted prior to construction and whether a proper compliance of environmental safeguards is carried out after a project is operational,” Linowes questioned.

Renewable projects including such solar and wind parks are already facing resistance from communities – including legal cases.

For instance, Sumer Singh Bhati, a Rajasthan-based farmer involved in agriculture and camel dairy work, explained that they have approached the National Green Tribunal against one such project which is threatening their pastoral land, agricultural farms and local wildlife including critically endangered great Indian bustard.

“The government is letting such parks come up in ecologically sensitive areas. Our area is the habitat of the great Indian bustard and we recently had a case of one such bird being electrocuted by power transmission lines. Also, the government has failed in addressing the concerns of the farmers. I have around 400 camels but the land that was there for grazing has been destroyed. There is no planning or concern for the local farmers,” Bhati said.

India is pushing for huge solar parks to achieve its target of 100,000 MW solar power by 2022. Photo: Vinaykumar8687/Wikimedia Commons

Conflicts in the development of renewable can impact investments

Project developers also understand concerns around land and how it can impact the investment put in by the developers.

Gautam Das, who is co-founder and the CEO of Oorjan Cleantech, said that it “would be great if the farmers or the landowners are able to participate in this opportunity.”

“So, land can be taken on lease from them and they can earn an annuity income over 25-30 years depending on whether the end use is for solar or wind. However, this requires strong legal documentation and enforcement to provide confidence to the investors. The ecosystem is evolving fast but there is a long way to go,” Das told Mongabay-India.

He cautioned that India would cross major milestones in the instalment of solar power “only when investors are confident about the ecosystem along with credit and operation risks.” Das emphasised that policy uniformity across the country and time-bound execution are the biggest aspects the government need to immediately address to solve the woes of the sector.

The MNRE specified that though probable sites have been identified on the basis of availability of mainly wind resource and suitability of land for wind power projects, the developers can install solar projects as well if they find a site to be suitable.

The government says that this will “pace up the deployment of wind power projects in the country” and “major uncertainties” of wind power project developers including land, transmission, clearances would be minimised, which would “not only reduce the commissioning time of wind power projects but also lead to competitive tariffs.”

Also Read: India’s U-Turn on ‘Clean’ Energy Is a Bad Move

Clean energy transition should not shift the location of conflicts

Renewable energy adoption is vital for a coal-dependent nation like India. Though India has already made and is looking at making rapid strides in renewable power development, experts want India to exercise caution and consider its impacts on the environment and communities.

Otherwise, it would only result in shifting of conflicts from coal-bearing areas to areas where renewable projects are concentrated and this clean energy transition would only harm the environment and communities.

Lisa Linowes said land conflicts, transmission lines that evacuate power without impacting the birds and level of impact on communities living around such parks are some of the questions that need to be answered.

“For instance, it is now clear that industrial wind energy facilities produce high levels of noise that can drive people from their homes. Rather than embracing large capacity targets, the focus should be on stricter regulations and post-project monitoring. Whether it is the pre-construction period or post-construction period, the impact of wildlife needs to be understood. Even in many parts of the US, such studies are not done even as there is a clear impact on avifauna including bats. Instead, the debate turns to choosing the lesser evil regarding fuel sources,” she argued.

On the MNRE’s proposed solar park policy, Das noted that “policy implementation and project execution at ground level may take far more time than ideally what it should. Hence, investors are sceptical to fund the projects at the construction stage.”

Das added, “We always prefer that the developer arrange bridge funding and hand over the operation assets to the investors. Interim or bridge funding is a significant challenge which the ecosystem and government need to address. Open access and park level approvals, ROW and land-related issues are additional concerns.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had recently highlighted a target of 450,000 MW by 2030 continuing India’s efforts to become a leader in clean technology.

Linowes warned against “blindly pursuing” mega renewable projects without understanding their larger impacts on the environment or communities.

“Solar and wind power developers are installing large projects which are yielding large financial rewards for them but the policymakers are forgetting that it is leading to a huge impact on wildlife and communities. We need to ensure wildlife and communities coexist otherwise the current policies like the one practised by India is inexcusable. India, in fact, has an opportunity to learn from US’ renewable programmes including the mistakes made before embarking on a similar path,” she noted.

This article was first published on Mongabay India.

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