Mega renewable energy park in Kutch could have potentially adverse environmental impact

  • The government of Gujarat recently cleared land allotment of about 60,000 hectares for a mega renewable energy park in Kutch region. The 41,500-megawatts renewable park (solar and wind) is estimated to attract investment of around Rs. 1.35 trillion.
  • Environmentalists working in the region stress that though renewable projects are better than other infrastructure or power projects, they could have serious environmental and land issues and called for critical examination.
  • Renewable sector experts concede that environmental concerns are legitimate but renewable projects are the best bet right now. They noted that evacuation of renewable power generated is also an important point that requires attention.

Recently, a news report highlighted that the Gujarat government has  plans to develop a 41,500-megawatt (MW) hybrid renewable energy park in Kutch. The state government has cleared the revenue department’s proposal for allotment of 60,000 hectares of land – nearly the size of Greater Mumbai – for this project. 

After the project was cleared by the Gujarat government, the Indian government’s Minister of Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal had tweeted that this will help realise Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of ensuring India’s leadership in the green economy and create numerous jobs.

Following the report, there has been a mixed reaction with some welcoming the plan while others have expressed concern about the impact on ecology and wildlife in the region. 

It also noted that the renewable energy park project is expected to attract investment of about Rs. 1.35 trillion and that the prime minister had given 2022 as the deadline for its completion. According to the report, for this project, the state government has already approved land allocation for several government-owned and private companies. 

At present (till August 31, 2020), India’s installed capacity of renewable energy is 88,793.43 MW and the country has a target of 175,000 MW of renewable power by 2022. Though India has made significant progress in renewable power installation over the past few years, the growth is still slow compared to the target. For instance, of the targeted 175,000 MW about 100,000 MW is expected from solar power. Of the 100,000 MW solar power, about 40,000 MW is targeted from the solar rooftop but so far only about 6,000 MW of solar rooftop has been achieved.

According to a source, the land finalised for the Kutch project is considered “wasteland” by the government but that may not be the case for the local people and could be an important area for them. Recently, the Rajasthan High Court stayed work related to a solar energy park in Rajasthan over land issues after locals filed a case against the land allocated for the project which the Rajasthan government had termed as a wasteland.

Mahendra Bhanani, who works with Sahjeevan, a non-governmental organisation that has been working on environmental issues in Kutch, said renewable energy projects are better than the traditional projects but it doesn’t mean there can’t be environmental and land issues. 

“Kutch is a unique desert ecosystem and needs protection … it’s not a wasteland. 60,000 hectares is a huge area … a proper assessment of land, environmental and social issues is required. We need to be careful with such mega projects,” Bhanani told Mongabay-India.

Devesh Gadhvi, who is the deputy director of the Kutch Ecological Research Centre, a division of The Corbett Foundation, echoed similar views.

“In Kutch, there are many protected areas and they need to be preserved. If one looks at Kutch there is a huge wetland Shakoor Lake which falls in both India and Pakistan. This region is home to hundreds of bird species and its adjoining areas are also prime habitat for the vultures and flamingos. There are many studies by reputed institutes like Wildlife Institute of India that have warned against the death of birds due to collisions with power lines. The area is also part of the Central Asian Flyway. So, even for a renewable project environmental impacts need to be considered,” Gadhvi told Mongabay-India.

Read more: India soon to have guidelines to save birds from wind energy farms

Are renewable energy parks green enough?

Renewable energy projects are being pushed as a solution for avoiding ecological impacts of fossil fuels-based power projects. In fact, in 2017, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) had said that solar power projects including solar parks are not covered by the environment clearance process under the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2006. But the ministry has advocated that the area being considered for such projects should not involve wetlands, agriculture land, ecologically sensitive areas or areas with rich biodiversity. 

Contiguous land is a major issue in the development of solar parks. Photo by Thomas Lloyd Group/Wikimedia Commons.

As far as the wind sector is concerned, over the years, several regulations and guidelines have been identified for the wind power sector to avoid damage to avifauna. 

But environmentalists and experts believe renewable energy projects including solar power projects can have severe land, environmental issues and social issues. 

For instance, Shikha Lakhanpal who works at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), in an article in 2018, had argued that large scale solar or wind energy farms require areas of contiguous land and the availability of land is contentious, especially in developing countries. She noted that even as renewable power projects pose equal if not a greater threat to ecological biodiversity and cause wide-scale dispossession of lands and livelihoods, they are rarely critiqued and called for carefully examining such projects.

Devesh Gadhvi, while agreeing that green energy is not 100 percent “green”, noted that no one is against development and if it can be done with all the safeguards it is better than not having green energy at all.

“Kutch landscape is a unique ecosystem and such a huge project would definitely have an impact. For wind power and solar power projects, power evacuation lines will be installed and they could threaten the avifauna. Another point is that Kutch is a desert ecosystem … There is nothing called wasteland, which is a term often misused for such an important land. It is home to millions of birds and is even the breeding ground for flamingos. Such transmission lines could threaten them. For instance, in 2010-11 there was a congregation of 1-1.2 million flamingos in Kutch and every day many of them used to die due to collision with power lines,” Gadhvi explained.

Giving an example of the development of a school near the highway where a board is put up on road warning people to drive slowly, he said that these birds are also the children of India and as per constitution they deserve safety. “When power lines of the metro rail project in Ahmedabad can be put underground for aesthetic and safety value, why can’t that be done when a project is allowed in Kutch? Why can’t it be done for flamingos which is Gujarat’s state bird and thus the emblem of the state?” he questioned.

He emphasised that if the government decides to develop this renewable energy park sustainably, using bird diverters and laying transmission wires underground, it could reduce instances of bird collision and the damages caused by it.

Rishabh Jain of Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), who works on renewable energy issues, said concerns regarding such projects are legitimate but by far these are the cleanest possible power projects right now. CEEW is a Delhi based think tank working on environmental issues.

“There are valid concerns regarding evacuation of power especially when projects are in far-flung areas (like Kutch) but a lot of operational plans have been made by different agencies over the past couple of years. There are definitely concerns due to the geographic concentration of these projects but renewable projects are our best bet to combat climate change. With time, we hope to plan better and expand the spread of the projects across the country,” Jain told Mongabay-India.

Read more: Save the Great Indian Bustard from wind power projects

Evacuation of green power is an important factor

Another important factor with renewable power projects that are installed in far-flung areas is the evacuation of power generated from such sites. However, experts note that over the years the authorities have worked to ensure that.

India has nearly 38,000 MW of installed capacity of wind power. Photo by Ashwin Kumar/Flickr.

Selna Saji, who is a programme associate with the CEEW, said the evacuation of energy is an important component for renewable projects, especially huge ones like the one planned in Kutch.

“Evacuation of energy is an important part of renewable projects and the infrastructure for it should be developed in tandem with the power plant development. With a higher proportion of renewable energy offtakers being inter-state, timely expansion of the Inter-State Transmission System networks (ISTS) and dedicated evacuation corridors becomes necessary. In the last two years or so, a lot of network expansion projects and process streamlining has been proposed. However, the keyword is timely implementation of these plans because in absence of that all these plans will remain on paper and will lead to project delays,” Saji told Mongabay-India.


Banner image: Gujarat is among the states with high potential of wind and solar power. Photo by Omkar Jadhav/Unsplash.

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