Clean Tech

Looking for a location? Try the wastelands

Updated on: Jan 28, 2020

Setting up renewable energy projects on wasteland conserves farm land and forests, thus protecting the environment, says a study. TV JAYAN reports

India can prevent the loss of farm land required to secure food for its growing population and protect its precious biodiversity, if it decides to site renewable energy (RE) projects — for which it has set a goal of 175 Gigawatts (GW) by 2022 — in its wastelands.

About 27 per cent of 3.29 million sq km of the country’s landmass is classified as degraded land and this is enough to meet its 2022 RE goals ten times over, says a study by researchers from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and others.

If degraded land is used for these alternative energy projects, the country can save anything between 24,100 and 55,700 sq km of agricultural land and spare 6,700-11,900 sq km of forests, says the study, which appeared in the journal Sustainability this month.

The authors claim that this is the first study to examine the potential impact of RE development on existing agricultural and natural lands if it is sited without the consideration of existing land use.

If these solar and wind energy projects were to be erected on lands already degraded by human activities, the programme will have less impact on biodiversity and agricultural production, say the researchers, led by Joseph Kiesecker and Sharon Baruch-Mordo from Global Lands division of TNC. Among other authors of the study are Dhaval Negandhi, an ecological economist with TNC India as well as Pareexit Chauhan of the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy in Bengaluru.

“We need to proactively think about where we put our solar and wind plants if we want to deploy RE quickly. While RE is a critical piece of the puzzle to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, these sources have large land footprint compared to conventional sources, such as thermal power plants. In our efforts to reach 175 GW by 2022 and further to 450 GW, as the Prime Minister had suggested last year in New York, RE projects can have unintended social and environmental impact, says Negandhi.

“If we let resource potential drive where we put our projects — that is, solar where sun is shining the most and wind where wind is blowing the most — more than 1 million hectare (10,000 sq km) of forest and 5 m ha (50,000 sq km) of agricultural land could be impacted. These kind of effects will create barriers for RE, thereby slowing deployment rate and putting investments at risk,” he says.

However, thanks to the enormous potential for solar and wind across the country, India can easily meet the 2022 goals by using degraded lands. This will ensure that adverse effects from RE are avoided and de-risk the sector, thereby facilitating quick deployment. It also gives India an opportunity to continue its leadership in advancing RE goals, and do it more sustainably.

According to the authors, the total land footprint needed to meet India’s 2022 RE targets would be anything between 55,000 sq km (equivalent of land area of Himachal Pradesh) and 1,25,000 sq km (size of Chhattisgarh).

Taking what India has achieved by 2017 — which is about 60 GW — as benchmark, the researchers also calculated how much land of value would be lost if the rest of the 2022 goal were to be achieved.

According to them, India would have to sacrifice an additional 30,000 sq km of land — both forest and agricultural land — for realising the remaining RE goals of 175 GW.

But in reality, the domestic RE programme has already gone ahead since 2017. The data available from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), till December 31 last year, says India now has an installed grid-connected renewable power capacity of 85.91 GW. Another 36.68 GW is currently under implementation, while 29.58 GW is undergoing the process of tendering.

This would take the total renewable generation capacity, both installed and in the pipeline, beyond 150 GW. India has another two years to reach its target of 175 GW.

Of the currently installed capacity, about 37.5 GW is from the wind segment, while solar energy’s contribution is around 33.73 GW.

The study is still relevant because India has already set higher renewable energy goals for itself. Addressing the UN General Assembly in September last year, Modi said India has plans to go beyond 175 GW and set a new renewable energy target of 450 GW. Even though he did not mention the time line, it is expected that this would be done by 2030.

In that context, the study has huge relevance. The biggest obstacle to the country’s ambitious renewable energy programme is believed to be acquiring land for establishing infrastructure. Many wind and solar energy projects have suffered from time overruns mainly because of the challenges involved in acquiring land.

Since proliferation of rooftop solar has been slow in India and solar development to date largely consists of ground-mounted solar, the aim of this study has been to quantify the potential impact on existing agricultural and natural lands from renewable energy development.

The authors argue that exploring the possibility of using wastelands for renewable energy projects will reduce land conflicts, facilitate project time lines and reduce project cost as a result of reduced related risk. Proactively developing India’s future renewable energy projects on these lower-impact lands is a win-win for development and conservation.

Negandhi acknowledges that the government is putting up many solar/wind plants on wastelands but the problem is these wastelands are not appropriately classified in many cases. “Many ecologically important grasslands are misclassified as wastelands. Similarly, a lot of currently classified wastelands can be restored and have large potential benefits from carbon sequestration, which are also not factored in while identifying places for such projects,” he says.

A science-based organisation, TNC plans to provide scientific information on ecological and social values of land parcels, going forward. “We have started with developing such a database for two States — Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra — and will soon launch a free-accessible platform called SiteRight, which can be used by policy-makers, businesses, NGOs and other stakeholders to support their decision in siting wind or solar projects. We are also planning to expand our work to all States that have large RE potential or target,” discloses Negandhi.

Published on January 28, 2020
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