We are currently experiencing an unprecedented increase in renewable energy. But it comes with a significant ecological and human cost.
India announced at the recently concluded COP26 conference in Glasgow that it would increase its renewable power capacity by 500 GW to replace 150 GW currently. In addition, it would also meet half of its energy needs from renewable energy. While energy analysts are still unsure if India’s 50% pledge refers only to generation or capacity, one thing is certain: we are experiencing an unprecedented expansion of the renewable energy sector.
India’s solar energy capacity increased 15-fold between 2014-2021. The government is now planning to triple the 2020 installed solar capacity from 37 GW to 270 GW by 2022. India’s noble ambitions for solar power are evidently on the rise.
Even noble, lofty ambitions can cast long shadows over the land and its inhabitants under the sun’s glare. India’s desire to expand solar energy is admirable. However, the devil is always in the details. The Indian ambition to expand solar energy and the pace at which it is pursuing this goal merit closer scrutiny, especially from an environmental perspective. This is because the strongest argument for these projects has been environmental. It is important to ask ourselves: How can we balance the potential benefits of power generation with human and ecological costs?
This is why we must look beyond the world of technology and economics to the everyday world of the earth and its inhabitants. To begin with, to generate gigawatts upon gigawatts of solar power, vast stretches need to be open and blessed with sunlight all year. India is very fortunate in this respect. India has more than half its terrain that is semi-arid and sunny, with 1,000mm of rainfall annually or less. These lands are too dry and arid to support a continuous canopy of trees.
The native vegetation of this zone is composed of grass, herbs, and shrubs. These Open Natural Ecosystems (ONEs) are incredibly diverse. They include woodland savannas as well as scrublands and grasslands. There are also rocky outcrops, ravines, and dunes. ONEs also contain a remarkable collection of animal species. Many of these, like the critically endangered great Indianbustard and blackbuck, are found only in the Indian subcontinent.
ONEs are not only home to unique life-forms but also provide valuable ecological services. Research shows that ONEs can capture more carbon in certain environments than trees. ONEs support the grazing-based livelihoods for millions of pastoralists and agro-pastoralists across the country. These communities of low density, with their rich cultures, have a long history coexistence with these ecosystems, and their unique wildlife.
However, India’s ONEs are still misunderstood and misrepresented. Successive governments have carried on a colonial legacy by calling ONEs “wastelands” and trying to make them productive. There are no conservation laws that protect biodiversity-rich areas of ONEs. This is a major difference from forests. These landscapes are among the most easy to destroy and degrade. Renewable energy technologies like solar power and wind are heavily dependent upon open spaces. Our wastelands are a better choice for such development.
Jayashree Ratnam (Director of the Wildlife Biology and Conservation Program, National Centre for Biological Sciences) and a global authority in savanna ecosystems, said that the unfortunate classification of semi-arid and arid grassland savanna ecosystems under the wastelands category has made them vulnerable to being co-opted for a variety of developmental projects. These labels conceal the loss of ecosystem services, biodiversity, and ancient livelihoods that have sustained these landscapes for thousands upon thousands of years. It is unlikely that these benign labels will be retained after considering the social and ecological costs.
John Locke, a famous 17th-century British philosopher, had a profound effect on a variety of topics, including liberalism and epistemology. He also influenced British colonial policies on land reform and taxation. Judy Whitehead, an anthropologist, says Locke’s concept of wasteland (instead of value-producing land) formed a foundational binary opposition that shaped how landscapes were classified. The category of “wasteland” was often associated with wildness, wilderness, or savagery in the 19th Century. It also defined who would be most at risk of dispossession and/or enclosure.
Common village lands used for pastoralist work and which were essentially untaxed were considered wastelands. India, celebrating its 75th anniversary of independence, proudly retains this colonial relic. Every few years, the government commissions this. Wasteland Atlas of IndianTo map areas that are not currently productive and to develop them. The AtlasSome categories are logic-defying: waterlogged areas, marshes, which are essential to groundwater recharge; mountains beneath permanent snow, which is the source for our greatest rivers; savannah pasturelands and pasturelands on which depend the livelihoods millions of pastoralists; deserts.
It was mislabelled
The ONEs encompass the largest category wastelands in India. These are savanna ecosystems that have been mislabelled grazing lands or degraded shrub forest. These are the same lands that are being targeted for large-scale, solar expansion.
As the ecological and cultural value of ONEs is often downplayed so too is the public benefit of India’s renewable energy projects. The Central Electricity Authority’s General Review 2020 is full of interesting figures. Renewable sources, which exclude hydroelectricity, account for only 8% of the power generation. They make up nearly 19% the installed capacity. Hydro, on the other hand, accounts for just 11% of installed capacity and 9% generation. Thermal power, however, accounts for 69%, but 80% generation. Even though they can produce power for only a few hours per day, solar and wind projects need additional power generation capability.
This anomaly is made more interesting by the political economy of power generation. Hydroelectricity, the traditional lynchpin of the renewables sector, has been in control of over 90% of installed capacity and power generation. The private sector now controls 95% of installed capacity, power generation and biomass, thanks to the new entrants, solar, wind and biomass. The private sector projects account for almost the entire gap between capacity generation and actuality, or in other words, between ambition and reality. These projects are entitled to higher standards of ecological, socio-economic, and energy audits, given that their promoters make substantial gains from incentives and concessions in land, infrastructure, and finance, but only modest contributions to energy.
This is often a source of confusion for the public who support renewable energies in their unwavering belief that they’re green technologies and therefore good. It is important to remember that it is not technology that determines the environmental footprint of an energy option. It is the scale and nature of its implementation. Even though a photovoltaic panel may look benign from a rooftop, it can be quite dangerous when used at gigawatt-scale. With plans to generate hundreds if not thousands of gigawatts of electricity at the grid-scale we end up creating ecological and social footprints of energy generation even with solar and wind technologies that are just like large hydroelectric dams.
As society and ecology are ignored, murmurs of discontent spiral into open conflict. The great Indian bustard is one of India’s most charismatic birds. He is being displaced and killed by these power lines. This has led to the Supreme Court having to intervene. Communities displaced from traditional grazing lands have been protesting these developments in Kutch, among others.
The government’s policy on rooftop solar installations is an alternative to grid-scale solar on ONEs. Although grid-scale solar can be difficult to implement on residential roof-tops there are large grey areas that have been developed or designated for industrial purposes, large-scale production of solar is possible. Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation owns a land bank totaling over 2.5 lakh acres. It would produce nearly 16 gigawatts per year if even 20% of the area were used for solar power generation. Because these industrial areas are major consumers, localised generation and utilisation can reduce transmission losses. Solar installations can also be made on rooftops of public buildings as with some railway stations.
Another alternative scenario is to use agrivoltaics in degraded agricultural lands. Dual benefits can be achieved by placing solar panels so that they can be grown below them. The shade of solar panels reduces evapotranspiration and conserves water. Additionally, the panels benefit from higher efficiency due to the cooling effect generated by the plants that grow below them. The Alliance for Reversal of Ecosystem Service Threats (AREST) has identified 11,000,000 hectares of degraded agriculture lands in semi-arid, sub-humid areas of India. These areas could be used for agrovoltaics which could transform the rural economy.
Although it is true that renewable energy projects have the potential to reduce our dependence on an energy economy that relies on fossil fuels, more attention must be paid to how and where they are implemented. Unfortunately, they have been poorly executed and poorly planned. They have not paid much attention to the ecological diversity and richness of the ONEs or the human livelihood and cultures these lands support.
Madhusudan works as a conservation scientist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. Vanak is an ecologist, Senior Fellow at ATREE in Bengaluru.