Chennai: From just over 11 megawatt (MW) of solar in 2010, India had installed 35.1 gigawatt (GW) of solar power as of June 2020, scaling up its solar capacity by over 3,000 times in less than a decade. Riding on political support, business interest, as well as positive public opinion, large-scale solar projects have come to be viewed as the silver bullet to India’s energy demands while mitigating carbon emissions.

Large-scale solar projects, which make up the preponderant share of 32.3 GW in India’s overall solar capacity, are exempted from environmental processes and public hearings. The biggest projects are fast-tracked and incentivised through various schemes. In solar parks, the state government acquires the land, sets up ancillary infrastructure and invites multiple private players to bid and set up for ‘plug and play’ installations, as in the Pavagada solar park in Karnataka. Then there are the standalone projects, such as Kamuthi in Tamil Nadu, where a single private firm wins the bid to build and operate. (In contrast, rooftop solar installations, typically of smaller-scale, total up to 2,817 MW.)

While development experts hail the rapid growth of India’s solar sector, a murmur of disagreement is emerging among climate experts and activists.

In this story, we examine the growing concerns over large-scale solar projects, from mining of minerals for panels and batteries, to leaving large swathes of land deprived of sunlight and water for decades, to impacts on livelihoods. Critics point out that local realities are often ignored while selecting sites for large solar farms: Shepherds, landless labourers and others depending on common lands for their livelihoods are neither being consulted before a solar project is set up nor are they compensated for their losses. We also speak to experts who suggest more wholistic ways to make the transition to renewable energy while avoiding the mistakes made in the past with large-scale conventional power.

New ultra-mega projects, old problems

“[By] taking away common lands from pastoral communities and destroying arid and semi-arid ecosystems and traditional water-conservation techniques developed over centuries, large solar power plants are given a free pass in the name of mitigating carbon emissions,” said Leo Saldanha, a Bengaluru-based activist working with Environment Support Group, an NGO that works on issues of social and environmental justice in India.

Based on a petition filed by Saldanha, the National Green Tribunal sought a clarification from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) on the exemption of solar power plants from environmental impact assessments (EIA). But in 2017, the MoEFCC reiterated its stance of exempting solar power plants from EIA.

The 2020 draft notification for the amendment of EIA gives an exception to large solar power plants among 39 other types of projects. “If the goal is to mitigate carbon emissions then incentivising rooftop solar panels makes more sense as they are less prone to dust, have a longer shelf life and don’t require extra land,” said Saldanha. “But the government is not pushing for it because the private sector does not want to get into it.”

While large solar power projects are mushrooming, the uptake of rooftop solar has been slow. In 2015, India set a target of installing 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022. Of this, 100 GW were solar with a break up of 60 GW in ground-mounted solar power projects and 40 GW in rooftop solar. Since then, while ground-mounted solar has increased to more than 32 GW, the capacity of rooftop has increased to 2.8 GW. Apart from solar power generation, other applications such as solar lamps, solar street lights and solar pumps have been promoted, and India is also exploring floating solar power plants.

The existing environmental regulations are too outdated and cumbersome for a modern source of energy, experts say, and could prevent the growth of the solar sector in the right manner. “There is definitely a need to ensure that environmental and social safeguards are incorporated in the design of solar power plants, but the current legal framework, that is, the environment clearance (EC) process, is inadequate to address this issue,” said Chandra Bhushan, chief executive officer of International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology.

The EC process is long-drawn, poorly monitored and enforced, and not suitable for a modern green industry like solar, Bhushan said. In favour of large-scale solar, however, he said that although solar rooftops are ideal, they alone cannot meet the entire energy demand of the country.

Rooftop solar caught in policy web

The demand for rooftop solar, from both the residential sector and the commercial and industrial (C&I) sector, has not been fully tapped, experts say. “When residential consumers are already receiving subsidised electricity from discoms, there is no incentive to opt for solar rooftops, which have a high capital cost and involve confusing bureaucratic procedures to get subsidies,” said Vibhuti Garg, an energy economist with Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).

State-owned discoms actively disincentivise rooftop solar in the C&I sector, Garg explained: “Discoms don’t want to lose their commercial connections who pay higher tariffs from the grid, and often burden them [commercial enterprises who want to install rooftop solar] with additional charges.”

Big companies intensify competition

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on July 10, inaugurated an ultra-mega solar park with a capacity of 750 MW, spread over some 1,590 hectare in Rewa district, Madhya Pradesh. “Solar energy is going to be a major source of energy needs not only today but in the 21st century, because solar energy is sure, pure and secure,” he said at an event to dedicate the plant to the people of Rewa.

The setting up of the solar park comes close on the heels of Adani Green Energy winning a Rs 45,000 crore ($6 billion) bid to install 8 GW of solar energy in the country over the next five years. The company claims that this is the largest single bid in the world, and will take its portfolio capacity from 15 GW currently to 25 GW by 2025.

Adani’s is just the latest example of private companies signing multi-million-dollar solar projects in India, which is emerging as the biggest market for venture capital and private equity investments, seeing a 169% increase at $1.4 billion in 2019 compared to the previous year, according to a report by Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance.

Four of the top five investments in renewable energy in 2019 were in India. “In second place came the US, down 8% at $797 million, and Europe was third, climbing 14% to $443 million,” read the report. Investments in large solar power plants in the country went up by 8% in 2019 compared to 2018, while investments in renewable energy overall dropped by 14%. Wind took the biggest hit, with investments down nearly 50%, the UNEP report said.

The way forward: Make impact studies mandatory

Large solar power plants require between 7,000 and 20,000 litres of water per megawatt per wash--an average water tanker has 5,000 litres capacity, and a wash is needed at least twice a year. And since they are mostly located in arid and semi-arid ecosystems, they add to the water stress of local regions. Requiring an average of five acres per megawatt, solar power plants are also land-intensive sources of energy, said experts.

“Utility-scale solar power plants can have serious effects on local economies and the environment,” said Nityanand Jayaram, an independent writer and researcher who won the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law in 2018. “From elevating temperatures locally to increasing water stress and alienating crop or grazing lands, solar power plants will remain false solutions that cause more problems than they solve unless they are subject to stringent environmental due diligence and public critique.”

Some experts warn, however, that although the extent of solar power plants’ impact on the environment is debatable and needs to be studied, it is not fair to compare them to coal or hydropower projects.

“Apart from emitting carbon, coal’s journey has a debilitating impact on the environment and public health at every step of the way,” said Nandikesh Sivalingam of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). “From mining to transport, air and water pollution caused by heavy metals and flyash, coal’s true cost to the planet is profound.”

Nevertheless, Sivalingam said, this does not mean that impacts of large solar projects can be ignored. “As a first step, solar power plants need to be allotted go/no-go zones where they can and cannot be set up, based on ecological and livelihood sensitivity of the regions. A fair and transparent public-hearing process is crucial for any development project,” he said.

Source: Mercom India (here and here); Tumkur district, Government of Karnataka; Andhra Pradesh Solar Power Corporation Private Limited, Rewa Ultra Mega Solar Limited, Adani Renewables

(Karthikeyan is a Chennai-based freelance journalist. He writes on land rights, environment, climate change, and agriculture. He won The Statesman Award for Rural Reporting in 2018.)

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