Solar and wind energy are considered environment-friendly, with zero carbon emissions. These sources of energy are going to be the main elements of India’s proposed march towards a low-carbon-economy.
But doubts have begun to be expressed over long-term ecological and social fallout of rolling out wind and solar energy on a large scale.
Going by the warning issued in a recent government-sponsored study of select green power projects in the country, large solar and wind power projects may lead to a conflict situation in years to come if corrective steps are not taken to minimise their ecological and social impact.
While wind and solar generation does not result in direct greenhouse gas emissions unlike coal-fired power stations it has other serious implications.
Use of Land, water
Land and water are key issues in conventional power projects. Now the same issues may plague renewable energy projects as well.
These projects require large tracts of land which is a scarce resource. “There is a possibility that resource demand by solar and wind projects may rake up several socio-economic conflicts in near future. Such projects will have to compete with other sectors for land. This will either impede the growth of renewable energy development or create direct conflict between projects and communities residing in vicinity of such projects,” the report from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has said.
Another cause of possible conflict would be water requirements of green power projects, particularly solar energy farms.
Solar panels need to be cleaned with water every day, since dust gathered on them could reduce their efficiency. Typically, a large solar photovoltaic plant could have several hundred panels.
Water requirement of large solar projects for maintenance purposes may be a cause of concern for the communities residing close to such projects and sharing same resource, according to the report.
This is a serious issue because solar farms are usually set up in arid and semi-arid areas, which are already water-stressed as they lie in low rainfall regions.
The sites visited during the course of the study included wind farms in Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, Satara and Pune districts in Maharashtra as well as a solar farm in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh.
India is currently the fifth largest wind power producer in the world. The potential for solar energy production is also very high as about 58 per cent of the total land area receives sufficient solar radiation for sustainable harnessing of solar power.
The total installed capacity of grid-connected renewable energy in the country is over 28,000 MW while off-grid power capacity is about 880 MW. About 70 per cent of total renewable energy comes from wind and about 4.5 per cent from solar photovoltaic.
Besides land and water issues, renewable energy production also damages the environment. An earlier assessment by the Centre for Science and Environment had pointed out that erection of turbines on hilltops and in forest areas is harmful to local ecology.
This requires building access roads which involves tree felling and blasting of rocks. Soil erosion results in silting of streams and water bodies. Construction of roads also results in linear fragmentation of habitat and scares away animals. In addition, wind farms could cause health impact due to shadow flicker and noise pollution.
Care needs to be taken to ensure the wind mills are not located in the path of migratory birds.
The Madhav Gadgil committee report on Western Ghats had pointed out that wind mills being set up in large numbers in this ecologically fragile area is leading to substantial negative impact on ecology and water resources.
Eco impact assessment
At present, it is not mandatory to conduct an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for wind or solar power projects under the Environment Protection Act.
Approval from the Ministry of Environment and Forests is required only if location of a wind power project is in a forest area or wildlife sanctuary.
An assessment by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) had found that about 45 per cent of total wind power generated in India comes from turbines located in forest areas. Small hydro projects below 25 MW capacity also do not need an EIA though it has been observed in Uttarakhand and Western Ghats that such projects are not benign to the environment.
Yet they are entitled to all fiscal benefits given to renewable projects. The Government should address these concerns as well.
Seeking to strike a balance between the need to encourage growth of green energy and environmental concerns, the report has suggested that new projects may be set up in areas which are “conflict free and readily available”.
At the same time, the use of natural resources such as land and water by these projects should be regulated. Instead of free flowing water, sprinklers may be used to clean solar panels.
Water harvesting and reuse of water may also be encouraged to promote water conservation. For the benefit of project developers, the Government can identify ‘go green’ (where projects can be set up without any objection), ‘go slow’ and ‘no-go’ regions in the country, it has been suggested.
Some States have already started experimenting with innovative ways to reduce land requirement for large renewable energy projects.
One way could be installing solar panels over large building or over irrigation canals as is being done in Gujarat. In wind farms, about 80 per cent of the land remains under-utilised or unutilised by projects.
The neighbouring community may be allowed access to such land for productive use. Ownership of windmills by villagers or their cooperatives – as is being tried in Germany – could also ensure greater community participation.
A framework for environmental oversight for green power is certainly required, but it should be done in a way that does not stifle growth of renewable energy.
India needs to move ahead in all forms of renewable energy, but in a responsible manner way that causes minimum or no damage to the environment.
(The author is a Delhi-based science journalist.)