Land for green power will be a challenge

Preeti Mehra | Updated on September 21, 2021

The challenge is to manage solar and wind projects on farm land. Rooftop solar and even wind need to be pursued as options

Will the focus on renewable energy trigger the next land grab? As India is seized by the urgency to switch from fossil fuel to clean energy, it will in all certainty trigger a race to establish mega green power plants. This in turn would necessitate the need for substantial acreage to locate large spreads of solar panels. And in the rush to find a place in the sun, the alternative power generating companies may go into land acquisition mode that could short-change landowners and farmers on the margins of cities and urban clusters and even eat into agricultural or forested land.

Unless the process is regulated and monitored, in India the situation could well be a throwback to 1970s Mumbai when unscrupulous realtors with the muscle of the mafia, arm-twisted simple folk to give up their properties at throwaway prices. It was on such land that the tall apartment blocks that dominate the suburban skyline of the city came up. Ditto has been the experience in other towns and cities where farmlands have been turned into housing jungles.

Not just that. Environmental concerns may be brushed aside — as has happened in land takeovers to facilitate mines and industry — in the name of green power to accommodate huge stretches of solar panels. They may generate clean energy from sunlight but cannot produce food. Neither can they serve as an alternative to green cover.

Given such concerns, how can we ensure that the expansion of renewable energy projects is least intrusive and make sensible use of land without creating environmental imbalances? A report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) offers alternatives for the expansion of solar and wind projects. Some of these seem logical as well as viable, but would need careful and extensive regulation, along with a will to implement.

Land requirement

The report, ‘Renewable energy and land use in India by mid-century” authored by energy researcher Charles Worringham, provides a calculation of the maximum land needed if India wants to go ahead with its plan to implement its net-zero target by 2050. It says that solar could occupy anything between 50,000 and 75,000 square kilometres of land, while wind could occupy an additional 15,000 to 20,000 sq km as the total project area including space between turbines and other infrastructure. The calculation further surmises that the amount of land that could be needed for solar is equivalent to 1.7-2.5 per cent of the country’s total landmass, or 2.2-3.3 per cent of its non-forested land.

Now, clearly that is a lot of land required. Earlier there were reports that ‘wastelands’ or ‘zero impact areas’ be used to set up renewable energy parks. These suggestions, however, have drawn flak from groups and owners who claim rights over using such land. The author cites the case of the Charanka solar park in Gujarat and the farmers in Assam who are opposing solar installation. Environmentalists too have pointed out that areas designated as ‘wastelands’ could “actually be fragile and home to unique ecosystems”. These ‘Open Natural Ecosystems’ are also the source of essential fodder to feed our 500 million livestock. The unending conflict between conservationists and land seekers is inevitable and is even happening today. Recently, the Supreme Court asked for transmission lines evacuating solar energy in Rajasthan to be laid underground to reduce the threat to the already threatened bird species, the Great Indian Bustard. This is still being contested.

Hence, it is imperative to find locations that optimise benefits and avoid conflict. And how does one do that? The best bet would be to recognise the problems ahead and tackle them through policy intervention. The report makes some pertinent suggestions, including developing clear environmental and social criteria for rating potential sites; comprehensive assessments and ranking of potential sites against these criteria in advance and independent of tenders or project proposals; incentivising the selection of the highest ranked locations in tenders; limiting undue regional concentration and supporting widely distributed renewable generation at a range of scales.

Besides this, it is important that innovation plays its part in minimising land use. Let’s see the options available: Solar can continue to use more and more rooftops, even those belonging to large public and private institutions. Corporate companies could easily lease these rooftops instead of land on the ground and also look for artificial water bodies where floating solar projects are a possibility. Wind energy too can innovate to use rooftops (options are already available) and experiment with offshore wind projects. Some designs that need minimum land use such as solar trees and solar canopies could generate large amounts of energy.

The author also suggests nurturing the ‘agrivoltaics’ sector. This means helping farmlands that make up the country’s 60.4 per cent total surface host both wind and solar projects. Wind turbines can be easily set up in farms and so can a host of solar trees.

The report points out that India has around 20 ongoing small-scale projects where solar panels have been set above the crops in various configurations. In the right conditions, they are seen to maintain yields, and reduce soil moisture loss. However, extended research needs to be done on this method to establish optimal conditions for different geographies and crops. Then with the right incentives agriculture could bring in much more renewable energy into the basket, without the loss of precious land. But for all this to work, there must be a strong will among policymakers to create alternatives.

Published on September 21, 2021

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