- Solar parks need 7,000–20,000 litres of water per megawatt (MW) per wash. Many solar installations in India are located in arid and semi-arid areas bringing significant risk to the local ecosystem and communities.
- Disappearing pollinators like bees and butterflies during installation is a concern. Pavagada, which has a 13,000-acre solar park, has also lost its bird and large mammal population.
- There is concern around what happens when the park is decommissioned. A study says at the end-of-life stage, if not handled properly, toxic elements from disposed of PV panels can adversely affect ecological systems.
For generations, farmers of Pavagada taluk in Karnataka’s Tumakuru district have gazed at the sky expecting rains to change their fortunes. Declared drought-hit 54 times in the last six decades, some villagers say that installation of a solar park signified a rare occasion when the sun’s harsh rays worked in their favour. The solar park Shakti Sthala, built on 13,000 acres of land taken on lease from farmers at Rs 21,000 per acre for the first five years, with a five per cent increase every two years, leverages the high average solar radiation of 5.35 kWh per square metre per day that falls on Pavagada.
Large colourful houses that dot these villages tell us that the park has bettered many lives here. Rich farmers with large landholdings are the true beneficiaries as they retained portions of their land for agriculture while the rest fetched them a good annual lease. Some of the poor farmers with small parcels of land who are now employed as daily-wage labourers in the park have also built big houses.
Approaching the Nagalamadike Hobli (a village cluster where the solar park has come up) from the Pavagada town, it’s hard to miss the sales of bikes or plot-for-sale signages by the highway or “international school” buses in canary yellow carrying children from these villages. Most of the homes in Pavagada have more than one two-wheeler. Mahesh, an organic farmer told Mongabay-India that many farmers have bought land in other villages or the town and enrolled their children in the town’s English-medium schools.
“It looked like a win-win situation for both parties,” said Pinaki Halder, National Director of Programmes-India, Landesa, a nonprofit working on land rights. He said, recollecting his conversations with villagers, very few dissenting voices were heard from farmers who were unhappy with the poor quality jobs being offered to them. He believes it has been a positive social change and the youth can focus on formal education now.
On closer examination, however, some of the rich landholders are found to have turned into moneylenders for the poor farmers. Linganna (52) works on Rs. 400 daily wage at the solar park. His son, a security guard at one of the solar companies, draws a salary of Rs. 14,500. Linganna took a loan of Rs. 10 lakh (one million rupees) from a moneylender at an interest of Rs. 2 per Rs. 100 (in addition to the money he received as compensation for the land he sold for the park) to build a large two-storeyed house, at Rs. 30 lakh (Rs. three million). Farmers like Linganna are pressured to build big houses because most of his peers have built one; jobs at the park have given them the assurance to take loans.
Drawing parallels to the fossil fuel sector, researcher Priya Pillai, who works on the socio-ecological impact of various energy systems, said the renewable energy (RE) sector had “disturbing similarities” with the mining industry during the transition phase. “When people get large compensations, they do not spend them wisely. They often move into smaller plots and build large houses. They need fuel for their new vehicles and maintain large houses but have no livelihood options. So they keep drawing money from the compensation,” she said. This highlights the need to include economic empowerment of local communities as a key component while ensuring procedural justice during transitions.
The ‘inherently good’ RE assumption
“One of the biggest challenges of RE growth in India is the assumption that RE is inherently good,” says Saksham Nijhawan, Manager, Responsible Energy Initiatives, Forum for the Future, an international sustainability organisation. The draft notification on the Environment Impact Assessment 2020 exempts solar parks from environmental clearance. Large solar parks, however, are bound to impact the environment.
A study titled Renewable Energy to Responsible Energy: A Call to Action, done by Forum for the Future with six other organisations, points to a large amount of water needed for periodic cleaning of solar panels. The study says that estimates range between 7,000-20,000 litres per megawatt (MW) per wash. Since approximately 56 percent of all solar installations are located in arid and semi-arid areas of India (such as Gujarat and Rajasthan), this brings significant risk to the local ecosystem and communities, the study adds.
In Pavagada, many companies have switched to mechanised cleaning in a bid to conserve water. This, however, is leading to job losses; panel-washing is one of the few jobs allocated to locals. An employee of Fortum, a Finland-based solar company at Pavagada, said on conditions of anonymity, that it was a dilemma the company was facing.
Farmers said that during the construction of the park, pollinators like bees and butterflies had disappeared, affecting farm yields. “The PPM level in the area had increased that prevented pollinators’ entry. They returned when the construction stopped but I got very low yield for two years,” Mahesh said. He said large mammals like bears, leopards and jackals which were once seen frequently in Pavagada are no longer around. Farmers said there was a decline in bird population as well.
“This region is close to the Jayamangali Blackbuck Reserve which is a habitat for the blackbuck as well as the Great Indian Bustard, listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN),” said Environment Support Group’s Bhargavi Rao, who is the principal investigator of the Harvard-Kennedy School-supported project Governance of Socio-technical Transformations. The Karnataka State Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan suggests looking beyond flagship species and protected areas to conserve biodiversity. Bhargavi believes that if the state was committed to the plan, they wouldn’t have come up with a tightly fenced solar park in this area.
Farmers also pointed out a rise in atmospheric temperature and increased rainfall. While it could be part of a larger climate change phenomenon, environmentalists said the changes needed to be studied for a better understanding of the park’s impact.
Halder of Landesa says he feels that the KSPDCL could’ve done a few things differently to make the transition just and fair. The presence of an agriculture expert on board to better advise farmers on the land-use change for informed consent is one. A mapping of skills in the region and programmes to develop skills useful for the park is another. He also says that voices of women, especially Dalit women, were missing during conversations around transitions. “A better understanding of their relationship with the land and what they stand to gain or lose as it transitions were necessary,” he said.
There is concern around life and livelihood in the region after the park is decommissioned. The agreement with the villagers states that the land would be given back to them in the same state as it was acquired. Environmentalists are certain that heavy concretisation of the land to build the panels have changed the land patterns. KSPDCL, however, is hopeful about extending the lease period and is certain that the land would be cultivable if it needed to be returned to the farmers. Questions, however, remain as to what would happen to the enormous waste generated during the process.
At the end-of-life stage, if not handled properly, toxic elements from disposed of PV panels can adversely affect ecological systems and the health of those involved in disassembling or dumping the panels, says the study, Renewable Energy to Responsible Energy by Forum for the Future. Due to the lifespan of PV modules (25-30 years) and the failure to design for re-use or recycling from the outset as well as due to the replacement of modules with newer, more efficient ones, India will soon witness large volumes of PV modules reaching the disposal stage. At this stage, it is crucial to come up with solutions to tackle this impending problem.