The new Indian government has promised to use solar to bring power to every home by 2019. Various states are already competing to bag gigantic solar projects. But we need to ensure that solar projects do not displace people from arable land or destroy biodiversity
It is clear that solar power is the big new thing in India, with many projects in advanced stages of being conceptualized or actually being commissioned. It is also apparent that there is a competitive environment among Indian states to attract maximum investments in the solar electricity generation sector, with each state trying to outdo the other through attractive policies and financial incentives.
It is not surprising that the states that seem to be competing with one another in the solar space – Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – also have the highest potential for solar generation. And interestingly, these states have goals and plans that far exceed the targets envisaged in the National Solar Mission under the National Action Plan on Climate Change.
The National Solar Mission was launched in 2010 with an aim to make India a global leader in solar energy with an ambitious target of installing 20,000 MW of grid connected solar power by 2022.
Following are some examples of how the Indian states are performing in the solar space, either in the form of actual on-the-ground projects or in terms of having policy frameworks to attract investments or a combination of both.
The case of Rajasthan stands out. As soon as the new government took over last year, it announced plans to install 25,000 MW of solar energy in the next five years. If this plan materializes, it will far exceed the total target of the National Solar Mission of 20,000 MW and will put India ahead of Germany, the world leader in solar installation with over 32,000 MW of solar installed capacity.
As a curtain-raiser to the ambitious proposal, the Rajasthan government is already moving on a plan to set up a 4,000 MW solar electricity generation plant. Sprawled across 20,000 acres, the project will come up in a salt producing area in the vicinity of the famous Sambhar Lake. With a projected cost of $1.2 billion for the first phase, it will be the world’s largest grid connected solar power plant.
Rajasthan’s neighbouring state Gujarat is not far behind. Gujarat Power Corporation Limited, the nodal agency for development of ‘solar parks’ in the state, has already developed and commissioned what is being touted as Asia’s largest solar park – a 590 MW project at Charanka village in the Kutch region. The park – which has been developed over 5,384 acres – has 224 MW of commissioned projects while others are in various stages of being set up.
Yet another neighbouring state, Madhya Pradesh, recently launched a 130 MW solar power plant at Diken in Jwad area of Neemuch district.
Far away from these states, in the southern part of India, Tamil Nadu brought out its Solar Policy in 2012 with a target of setting up 3,000 MW of solar generation by 2015.
All of this is surely good news from a perspective of ensuring an energy secure India and definitely from the perspective of reducing our carbon footprint.
Implications on environment and livelihoods
But are there any implications of these massive solar projects on the environment and development?
A lot of these projects, whether they are in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or Gujarat, have come up in eco-sensitive and wetland areas, even though they claim to be in barren land.
The Rajasthan project, for instance, is allegedly coming up in the catchment area of Sambhar Lake which can severely impact the biodiversity of India’s largest salt-water lake. Spread over 96 square km, the wetland is home to around 20,000 flamingos and many other migratory birds that congregate there every winter. The fact that it is counted among the world’s 2,000 most important wetlands under the International Ramsar Convention clearly shows the ecological importance of the lake and the need to conserve it.
Environmentalists also fear that the project could potentially affect surrounding villages and community settlements on the wetlands. The lake is also one of the country’s largest salt producing areas since the 1870s and it is feared that the solar project will put the livelihoods of the salt workers at risk.
The scenario is no better in Gujarat. While the Charanka project in Gujarat has been touted as a venture that has brought sunshine to an otherwise barren land, non-governmental groups working in the area say that the solar farm has actually resulted in displacement of farmers from a vast tract of agricultural land. The area was well-known for the cultivation of sesame – a high value cash crop. But since the project came up, the production of sesame seeds declined in the region affecting the revenues of a large number of farmers.
And there are other problems as well. Civil society groups that have been actively monitoring infrastructure projects in India have alleged that a number of companies have flouted rules of the National Solar Mission in order to bag more projects than they are entitled to. This could possibly be because both the centre as well as state governments have made land acquisition much easier for the companies to set up solar generation plants.
It is also feared that in the name of mitigating climate change and low carbon development, many companies and industrial houses are grabbing lands while not only displacing vulnerable and poor communities from their traditional land holdings but also depriving them of their livelihoods.
Therefore, while it is definitely good news that Indian states are competing with one another on policy frameworks to attract investments for renewable energy projects, abundant caution is necessary to ensure that adequate and appropriate regulatory mechanisms are in place to check land grabbing and community displacement.
One may correctly argue that land grabbing and community displacements are not restricted to solar companies. But it is becoming increasingly important that these systemic issues are addressed on a war footing.
Rooftop solar needs a big push
In addition to the above and very specific to solar generation, it is high time that the Indian government gave more impetus to developing a policy framework to promote rooftop solar generation, particularly in cities. We have the example of the German Energy Transition, which very successfully tapped the immense potential of solar rooftop systems. If Germany, with a relatively low solar radiation rate can do so, India with plentiful sunshine, can definitely do far better on the front.
Further, it is also time for the country to focus on smaller scale energy projects. Under the National Solar Mission, India has installed around 1,000 MW of grid-based solar power fulfilling the targets of the first phase. But grid-based solar energy reaches only those households that are already connected to the grid.
For a country like India, where over 44% of rural homes do not have an access to electricity, one of the priorities for the energy sector is to ensure clean, affordable and sustainable energy access to all households. Given this priority, there are enough case studies to prove that for large pockets of rural India, decentralized renewable energy solutions work best.
Therefore, any policy framework for the energy sector needs to give equal importance to creating a business environment for investments in the decentralized renewable energy sector.
Srinivas Krishnaswamy is the CEO and founder of Vasudha Foundation. An economist by training, he has over a decade of experience working on the issues of economic reforms, sustainable development and environment.