A new tool to site renewable power projects to avoid conflicts

  • Large renewable energy projects that take up vast tracts of common land for infrastructure do not enable a just transition of energy.
  • A study suggests that it is possible to meet renewable energy targets with less socio-ecological impact by siting the projects on lower impact lands.
  • The new tool identifies socio-environmental risks to sites identified for renewable energy projects. It also shows lower impact sites with high-energy potential laying out ways to energy transition while ensuring social justice.

There is no debate that renewable energy projects, when implemented suitably, are more environment-friendly and sustainable than fossil fuel-based projects. But if large renewable energy projects are the way forward, experts say they could have irreparable environmental and social implications not very different from fossil fuel-based energy generation. A new tool, SiteRight, can help select locations for solar and wind projects that can help meet India’s green energy goals while avoiding adverse impacts on the environment and people.

India is surging ahead with its ambitious renewable energy installation target of 175 GW by 2022. The National Electricity Plan (NEP 2018) gives a clear indication that India’s energy transition is swiftly unfolding with RE based capacity projected to form one-fourth of the total installed capacity by 2026–27 with a special focus on mega solar and wind parks. While this energy transition is apparently green, the question remains if it is going to be a just transition.

Large solar and wind energy projects are set to take over vast tracts of land owned by the government, private and the commons. It is often land classified as wasteland (comprising grassland, open degraded forest, marshy land, flood plains, terai land or hilltops) and deemed unproductive are chosen for the purpose. Apart from the biodiversity loss, these mega renewable energy plants affect the livelihoods of subsistence farmers and nomadic herding communities, whose access to these lands gets cut off.

In a report titled Powering Ahead: An assessment of the socio-economic and environmental impacts of large-scale renewable energy projects and an examination of the existing regulatory context, prepared by Asar Social Impact Advisors Private Limited for Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a German green think-tank, the authors quote the cases of Andhra Lake wind farm in Maharashtra located in an ecosensitive zone and Pavagada Solar Park in Karnataka, one of India’s large utility-scale solar project to enumerate the extent of social and environmental damage these mega renewable energy projects can cause if they are not planned on appropriate sites.

The Andhra Lake wind farm, developed by the CLP India Private Limited is close to the perimeter of Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary (BWS), a high ecological value region in the northern reaches of semievergreen and seasonal cloud forests that are home to endangered flora and fauna like the Giant Squirrel and the leopard that are endemic to the BWS.

Read more: Wind-solar parks: Conflicts galore but India wants more

How renewable energy projects could fuel conflicts?

The Pavagada solar park is spread over an area of approximately 13,000 acres and covers five villages in one of the most backward and arid taluks in the Tumkur district of Karnataka and was conceptualised by the Karnataka Solar Power Development Corporation Limited (KSPDCL).

The villagers have not just lost their farmlands and livelihood to a project that promises only short term financial gains, they fear that their land, if and when it is returned, would be rendered useless due to various reasons including large scale extraction of water for the running of the solar park and other installations.

One of the authors of the study, Priya Pillai emphasised that in the case of Pavagada, it was largely the economically backward farmers dependent on livestock who were affected due to the loss of grazing grounds. While experts like Pillai recommend decentralised energy production governed mostly by communities, if large energy projects are the way forward, the solution could well be in siting the projects at the right, least impactful places.

A study conducted by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) shows that India can meet (exceed even) its renewable energy targets, by placing renewable energy infrastructure on lower impact lands.

But if the projects are not at the “right site”, we stand to lose 6,700–11,900 square kilometre of forest land and 24,100–55,700 square kilometre of agricultural land, says the study. The organisations have collaborated with Vasudha Foundation and Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) to create a tool ‘SiteRight’, to support decision-makers make better siting choices.

The tool that has already found mention in the reports on renewable energy projects by The World Economic Forum and the IUCN can be used by policymakers, businesses, and financial institutions, says Dhaval Negandhi, an ecological economist at the TNC. The tool that’s fully developed for two states, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh is in the process of expanding to include other states rich in renewable energy potential.

SiteRight not just identifies socio-environmental risks to sites identified for renewable energy projects but can also be used to find high solar and wind energy potential sites with lower impact.

A screengrab of the SiteRight tool. Image from SiteRight/The Nature Conservancy India.
A screengrab of the SiteRight tool. Image from SiteRight/The Nature Conservancy India.

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

The tool could help in avoiding conflicts

According to Negandhi, the tool will come in handy for all stakeholders ranging from policymakers and government agencies like the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy or state nodal agencies on renewable energy projects who could use the tool while issuing regulations or guidelines to achieve green energy goals with reduced risk; business organisations with an interest in the sector and financial institutions that are interested in investing in renewable energy projects.

“In the future, we are working on including communities as well. They will be able to upload their inputs on the socio-environmental impact of a certain area under consideration for renewable energy and also suggest areas with a minimum impact they would want developers to consider for projects,” Negandhi told Mongabay-India.

He said the tool helps to ensure that other policy goals like sustainable development goals are not compromised while meeting renewable energy goals. It can also assist businesses in reducing project costs and delays by siting the project in areas with lower chances of conflicts.

The tool has data sourced online as well as from public agencies and collated to form three modules — awareness, site assessment and planning modules. While Awareness Module gives a detailed overview of the extent of ecological conflict a site could potentially throw up, the site assessment tool that assesses the potential sources of conflicts and lastly, the planning module that helps identify low-conflict areas where a project could be considered to be set up.

The tool has already been received well by the stakeholders, particularly the financial institutions and business organisations, said Negandhi. “Companies like Tata power with a history of doing responsible business is keen on exploring this further. Similarly, financial institutions like the State Bank of India is considering the tool for financial due diligence before investing in renewable energy projects. We’ve got mixed feedback from government agencies,” he said.

The SiteRight tool suggests that there are ways to minimise the social, ecological, and economic impact of huge infrastructure projects in the name of development. Renewable energy is the future, said Pillai, “but if we make the energy transition in the same way as we did with fossil fuel, then renewable energy too will hit the same roadblocks. This is the time we need to study and address social justice. It shouldn’t just be about shifting investment from one source of energy to another, it has to be a just transition enabling energy democracy, addressing energy inequality”.


Banner image: Solar panels installed on a farm in Tamil Nadu. Photo by PWRDF/Wikimedia Commons.

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