Potential offshore wind project in the Gulf of Mannar leaves fishers anxious

  • The Gulf of Mannar, a protected geographical location with shallow waters and sensitive biodiversity, is considered an attractive and viable site for offshore wind power projects in India.
  • Though the local people and fishers’ union representatives understand the benefits of offshore wind power, they fear that the region is far too sensitive in terms of fish populations and pearl oyster banks, which are directly related to their livelihood.
  • Experts note that comprehensive environmental impact studies including biodiversity assessment is required to understand the impact of such projects.
  • The National Institute of Wind Energy assures that the environment and social impact assessments will be completed and only with approval from all stakeholders will the offshore turbines be installed at the Gulf of Mannar.

A protected geographical location between the southern tip of India and the west coast of Sri Lanka, the Gulf of Mannar is a sensitive ecological zone as it is home to rare species of flora and fauna. The area is, however, also the spot where offshore wind power projects are being planned – a move that has sparked concerns among the local community which depends on fishing for its livelihood.

The northern sector of GoM is the first marine biosphere reserve of India. According to the Tamil Nadu government, the Gulf of Mannar has about 4,223 species of flora and fauna. The world-renowned pearl oyster banks in the region supplement the rich marine biodiversity and continue to draw the attention of not only conservationists, but also tourists, researchers, and historians. To imagine giant turbines in this seascape is hard for the fishers of the region.

Middelgrunden wind farm. Representative picture. Photo by Ben Paulos/ Wikimedia Commons.
Middelgrunden wind farm in Denmark. Representative picture. Photo by Ben Paulos/ Wikimedia Commons.

In February 2022, the National Institute of Wind Energy (NIWE) issued a tender for the supply and installation of a floating LiDAR buoy which will collect data such as the wind speed and direction, sea surface temperatures and wave heights and directions for the Gulf of Mannar. The offshore wind project, however, will take some time as it is expected to be installed only once the data collection is done and required impact assessment studies are complete.

At present, wind power accounts for 40.12 gigawatts (GW) of the 106.3 GW installed capacity of renewable energy in India. By 2030, of the estimated 450 GW installed capacity, 140 GW is expected from wind power projects. However, with land increasingly becoming a scarce commodity, offshore wind projects are expected to play a crucial part in India’s clean energy transition plans.

Though India is yet to establish an offshore wind power project, the global installed capacity of offshore wind energy projects is about 35 GW and by 2030 it is expected to be about 270 GW, according to the Global Offshore Wind Report 2021. India has a target of 30 GW of offshore wind installations by 2030.

According to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), more than 95 percent of commercially exploitable wind resources are concentrated in seven states – Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.

To add offshore wind projects to India’s renewable energy mix, a knowledge hub called the Centre of Excellence for Offshore Wind and Renewable Energy, was recently set up by India and Denmark. This joint initiative between the Indian government’s MNRE and the Danish Energy Agency (DEA) is aimed to create an enabling environment for offshore wind farms in India. Thus, it is no surprise that the Gulf of Mannar in Tamil Nadu has been chosen by this Centre as one of the most attractive and economically viable site areas for offshore wind in India. But before Tamil Nadu leads the offshore wind revolution it must face a fair share of challenges.

Read more: India’s struggling wind power sector needs fresh air to regain growth

Fishers’ lives to change

For generations, the fishers living in Dhanushkodi and the villages near the Gulf of Mannar have been practicing traditional fishing and pearl oyster collection. But their lives will change drastically in one way or another, very soon.

The local people fear that there are going to be huge cranes, heavy machinery and big turbines interrupting their occupation, even if it’s temporary. “Ports are relatively smaller in size; need significant modification efforts for readiness to OWF (Offshore Wind Farm) installation,” reads an important recommendation for Tamil Nadu from the Global Wind Energy Council report from April 2021, which means that there is going to be a huge infrastructure change. However, the fishers believe that the wind turbines would mean permanent electricity for the area.

The fisherfolk of Dhanushkodi live close to the sea in huts owing to their occupation but have brick houses a few kilometres away. Over the past few years, most of them have installed solar panels over their huts and are now used to meeting their energy needs with a clean source. Although the knowledge that offshore wind is a clean energy resource gives them happiness, they fear that it might threaten their occupation.

Fishers of Dhanushkodi have installed solar panels over their huts and are now used to meeting their energy needs with a clean source. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay-India.
Fishers of Dhanushkodi have installed solar panels over their huts and are now used to meeting their energy needs with a clean source. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay.

“Solar energy has been very useful for us. If solar technologies are improved, we will get to run more appliances and that will be enough. Our children are able to study with the lights we have, and we feel secure. However, there are complications with the wind turbines. We can’t tell yet, how it will alter the seascape and where the turbines are going to be installed. It could get really challenging when we are pursuing an already difficult profession,” M. Kodikumar, a fisherman from Dhanushkodi, told Mongabay-India, as his wife Eeswari, displayed the TV and lights run by solar power in their hut.

M Kodikumar and his wife Eeswari show show their TV and lights running with solar energy. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/ Mongabay-India.
M Kodikumar and his wife Eeswari displayed their TV and lights running with solar energy. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/ Mongabay.

The local people are open to new projects as they say it means a better future for their children who might not even take up their occupation, but insist that the decision-makers include them in any project that involves their locality or their livelihood.

M. Panjavarnam, a shopkeeper in Dhanushkodi, has been diving for pearl oyesters several feet underwater for decades, with her gang of women. She says that solar has changed her life too. “I’ve lived without electricity for years. But I see a difference now. I can run many appliances with solar technology and the light available at night makes me feel secure,” she shared with Mongabay-India. She stated that she understands the significance of clean energy, but wind would be something that would need serious discussions.

“I know that the next generation might not take up fishing. My daughter is now a nurse in a big city. I believe that education for our children is the most important tool for change. That is why, with regards to development, we are not against it. If offshore does not harm the livelihood of the fishers, we are happy to welcome such projects. But before any decision is made, it is always best to discuss with us and be transparent about the plans and get a collective opinion,” asserted Panjavarnam.

M. Panjavarnam has been pearl fishing several feet underwater for decades, with her gang of women. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/ Mongabay-India.
M. Panjavarnam has been pearl fishing for decades, with her gang of women. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay.

Dhanushkodi, a coastal village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, was once a ghost town after a cyclone hit in 1964, destroying all important structures and resulting in a huge death toll. Now, the village has hundreds of families whose livelihoods depend on fishing. Dhanushkodi is one among the many villages which depend on the ocean waters in and around the Gulf of Mannar for earning their livelihood.

M. Karunamoorthy, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions’ fishermen wing district secretary wants the planners to consider the long-term impacts of offshore wind. “Fishers from Pamban, Chinna Palam, Thoppukadu, Keelakarai and Vedalai will be affected if these wind farms are set up in important zones. This project should involve locals and fisher unions right from the planning stage,” he told Mongabay-India.

Beyond these concerns, some resistance, however, may already be brewing. For instance, Tamil Nadu Sea Workers Association State Secretary, C.R. Senthilvel sternly states that the offshore plan is not suited for the Gulf of Mannar.

“In an urgency to meet clean energy targets and implement projects, the environment is usually compromised. The Gulf of Mannar is an important shallow area, where lots of fish species breed. There are also lots of pearl oyster rocks. It is very valuable for our community here. The stretch of Gulf of Mannar is already narrow and the fishers face issues with Sri Lanka. We plan to oppose the offshore project in the region. We are not against offshore technologies, but we believe that the Gulf of Mannar is far too precious in terms of biodiversity, and we suggest that an alternate place be chosen for the projects,” he told Mongabay-India while insisting that the opinion of fishers’ unions be heard before implementing any plans.

“This will not stop with the turbines,” he said, adding, “this will lead to digging deep for laying cables to transport electricity and connect it to the grid. It will lead to the setting up of other small plants and the harbours will expand. The sea-based traditional lifestyle will vanish, and the biodiversity will not be protected!”

Read more: Demand for sea cucumbers turns India-Sri Lanka waters into trafficking hotspot

The threat to the unique biodiversity

According to wind energy experts, leveraging offshore in a country like India with a 7,600 km long coastline is vital. However, would a renewable energy project be considered successful if it comes at the expense of an important habitat that we are trying to conserve?

The National Offshore Wind Energy Policy launched by the Government of India in 2015 states that an Environment Impact Assessment is an essential component of the offshore project. Some immediate negative consequences like noise pollution both above and below the sea surface is said to affect marine fauna. The laying of cables is predicted to affect moulting birds, and mask the communication of sea birds, according to studies conducted in offshore wind farms in other locations. Thus more biodiversity studies, bird maps, and migratory route maps are needed in India, as offshore projects are being developed in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat.

“We are preparing a bird sensitivity map in India, in which the specific sites chosen for offshore wind will also be included. This will help in understanding the avian population that could encounter the turbines or be affected by their presence. Although birds that migrate fly at a high altitude, and might not necessarily collide, the sites chosen for offshore farms are crucial sites for birds. The sensitivity map will provide more details,” Rameshkumar Selvaraj from Bombay Natural History Society told Mongabay-India.

A 2021 study that examined the faunal richness of the Gulf of Mannar region outlines three of its uniquely sensitive features: oxygen deficiency associated with coastal upwelling that stresses marine life does not occur here, since the Gulf of Mannar receives adequate primary plankton via the advected waters of periodically reversing surface currents from the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, and transparent waters and aerated seafloor is conducive for diverse corals and sensitive fauna. The study said, “since this (features) is the result of a prolonged natural evolution, it is very important to protect the GoM from all kinds of environmental degradation for the conservation of its astonishing marine life.”

Many of the feasibility studies have recommended Environment Impact Assessments and social acceptance studies at GoM. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/ Mongabay-India.
Many of the feasibility studies have recommended environment impact assessments and social acceptance studies at the Gulf of Mannar before setting up offshore turbines. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay.

The feasibility study for the offshore wind farm development in Tamil Nadu, in 2018, seems to be addressing these important environmental concerns. It maintains that the environment impact assessment will need to consider environmental risks, the flora and fauna of the region, influence on fisheries and influence on other sea life and birds. Physical aspects like water pollution, human and socio-economic impacts are also highlighted. The report also recommends that at each offshore wind farm, an environment management plan be included with suitable staff.

In fact, many of the feasibility studies and initial reports have recognised the strong fishing traditions, geopolitical pressures, significance of biodiversity and have recommended EIAs and social acceptance studies at the Gulf.

Read more: Chennai artist and deep-sea diver creates awareness about coral health

Is there a perfect place to put a turbine?

Off the coast of Tamil Nadu, there is roughly 35GW of offshore wind energy potential. Currently, eight zones have been selected as prospective sites for installing offshore wind turbines and the state has a 2GW offshore target for 2024. K Balaraman, Director General of NIWE clarified, “These sites are selected indicatively based on a multi-criteria analysis, but yet to be approved.”

“There are many more studies and discussion papers that must come out. Only after proper approval from all stakeholders will the offshore turbines be installed,” he told Mongabay-India. He assured that the environment and social impact assessment will be conducted before proceeding with the project. When questioned about the apprehension of the fishers, he added that they will also be involved in the discussions.

Offshore wind potential zones in Tamil Nadu identified in the feasibility report. Photo from MNRE.
Offshore wind potential zones in Tamil Nadu identified in the feasibility report. Photo by MNRE.

However, there is a concern about the high cost of power from offshore projects. The secretary-general of the Indian Wind Turbine Manufacturers Association (IWTMA), D.V. Giri said “the Plant Load Factor (PLF) of offshore turbines is higher than onshore turbines, but the cost is also higher” and thus “there is a worry about DISCOMs (power distribution companies) not being able to purchase the electricity produced at a high cost.”

“Although the cost is higher in offshore projects than onshore in the present scenario, offshore turbines are being planned since there is continuous wind at these locations and large capacity turbines can be installed. A single turbine of 8 megawatt (MW) can be installed,” explained Balaraman. He added that the lessons from Denmark and other countries with successful offshore plants and international collaborations will be very useful for India as it sets up the initial offshore farms.

The global offshore wind market however is growing, and the offshore wind supply chain is improving. As a result, significant cost reductions are expected in the coming years, according to the first Indian technology catalogue for offshore wind that was launched last month.

The major private wind power developers are also ready. Siemens Gamesa, a leading wind turbine manufacturer, says they are ready for offshore. “As a market leader in offshore technology, we are ready to be a part of the solution that will help India meet renewable energy targets,” Madhu Boppana from Siemens Gamesa told Mongabay-India. Tata Power Renewable Energy Limited, a big player in the renewable energy landscape is now partnering with the German-based RWE Group to explore the potential for joint development of offshore wind projects in India.


Banner image: A fisher in Dhanushkodi. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay.

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