- Rapid renewable energy installation and transition has left several aspects overlooked which have given rise to new problems.
- Some of these issues are related to land availability and acquisition for mega-renewable projects, impact on biodiversity, lack of involvement of local communities and gender-based plans, lack of financing solutions, absence of waste management and recycling policies among others.
- India is working towards achieving 500 GW of installed capacity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. At this point it is crucial to examine the challenges of the clean energy sector’s rapid growth and solutions to arising issues.
India has been racing to meet its ambitious clean energy commitments, post the Paris Agreement in 2015. The ambitions have been backed by strong policy support which in turn has transformed the country’s energy market and pushed India among the top countries in terms of clean energy adoption.
But the shift from fossil fuels to renewables, as necessary as it is, currently leaves a few questions unanswered: What will happen to the states that stop producing coal? What will happen to the millions working in coal and related industries? Are they skilled enough to switch to jobs in the renewable sector? And are renewable energy projects even going to come up in formerly coal-dependent regions? What are some of the solutions that we can consider at this stage to overcome looming challenges?
In this episode of GigaWhat, Mongabay-India Contributing Editor and the podcast host, Mayank Aggarwal, speaks with Balasubramanian Viswanathan (policy advisor, International Institute for Sustainable Development), Bhargavi Rao (Senior Fellow and Trustee, Environment Support Group) and Selna Saji (Research Analyst, CEEW).
Mayank Aggarwal (MA): You are listening to Everything Environment by Mongabay-India.
This episode is special as it is the last one in the series GigaWhat.
In the previous nine episodes, we spoke to communities impacted by renewable energy projects, researchers, industry bodies, think tanks, policymakers, startup founders, ecologists and activists to bring very specific and nuanced aspects of India’s clean energy growth. We looked beyond the numbers of installed energy capacity and the technology revolution.
The detailed discussions introduced us to the opportunities India has, to make this energy transition right, bring energy to millions of people where there’s none, involve communities in development projects, create jobs in rural areas, fuel startups, reduce carbon emissions comparatively and much more.
India’s renewable energy dreams have been big since the country shifted gears post-Paris climate summit in 2015. Rapid policy changes backed the dreams. The support undoubtedly transformed the Indian energy market and pushed India among the top countries in terms of clean energy adoption. The country is now working towards achieving 500 GW of installed capacity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.
However, every choice has a cost. Rapid renewable energy installation and transition has left several aspects overlooked. And they have given rise to new issues.
Issues related to land availability and acquisition for mega-renewable projects, impact on biodiversity, lack of involvement of local communities and gender-based plans, lack of financing solutions, absence of waste management and recycling policies, etc.
Considering its impact on society, experts fear that the clean energy sector will follow in the footsteps of the fossil fuel industry.
The shift from fossil fuels to renewables is needed, eventually, but it poses loud questions: What will happen to the states that will stop producing coal? What’ll happen to the millions working in coal and related industries? Are they skilled enough to switch to the renewable sector? Also, is renewable energy coming up in coal-dependent regions in the first place, or is it happening elsewhere? How will the state departments and economy cope with this shift?
I’m Mayank Aggarwal, Contributing Editor at Mongabay-India. We are an online publication dedicated to bringing you stories on science and the environment in India.
In this episode, we will try to understand the challenges that this sector’s rapid, but probably unplanned growth has thrown. We will examine if there are solutions and what needs urgent attention.
And before we proceed, here is a note about Mongabay-India’s new podcast series.
The world is switching to clean energy primarily to tackle climate change. But to know that we are witnessing a changing climate, scientists had first to find out how the climate was in the past, multiple centuries ago. How did the biodiversity on Earth look, and how did it cope with changing environments? In the new podcast series, Imprints, you’ll hear interviews with India’s five paleo scientists. They tell us how they unearth data from lake beds, libraries and beyond, the challenges they face in hunting fossils and accessing data, and why this science is so crucial in the present day. Subscribe to Everything Environment by Mongabay-India to get updates on Imprints.
Now back to GigaWhat.
Balasubramanian Viswanathan (BV): My name is Balasubramanian. I am a policy advisor with a think tank called the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). It is a think tank, which is global in nature.
MA: Balasubramanian works with the energy team at IISD. Apart from India, he looks at countries such as Indonesia, South Africa, Nigeria and Canada.
BV: So, I’ve been with IISD since 2018. My focus areas have been broadly described as shifting government support from fossil energy to clean energy.
What is the biggest source of you know, man-made CO2 emissions or broadly greenhouse gas emissions, and that is the energy. Energy as a whole encompasses not just power, but also transport industry, buildings and so on. The energy transition is not just the power sector, as you may think. And it’s not necessarily a single one-on-one debate, as you see with coal versus renewable or coal versus solar, it is a lot more complex than that. And also, in my view, an energy transition is not a technological transition. Of course not – it is financing, it is politics, it is policy, it is social, society and regional development, there are many factors that contribute to an energy transition.
If there are going to be big changes, it is also an immense opportunity to improve our society and communities and the way we structure our lives. So, within this, it’s kind of integral that this energy transition is fair, equitable, and socially just. It holds the people who have polluted most accountable, it ensures that people who deserve a better quality of life receive it, and their sort of lifestyle is not hampered by it. And all of these elements should be encompassed with whatever actions or activities or policies that we have planned. All these things together comprise just transition or just energy transition. Now to the question of whether it is happening in India or not, I would say we are very early in the process, there are many issues that we have noticed that need to be resolved. And there needs to be more thought into it. The transition is underway. As I see right now, we are in the build-out phase, or scale-up phase. But a bigger transition is a scale-up and a scale-down. So, the second you start building up a bunch of things, like activated solar plants, or green hydrogen, we also need to build-down or scale-down or phase-out or phase-down, whichever is your preferred language. That also needs to be done. So, since we are in the buildup phase, we have sort of gotten away without looking more at the social aspects, because that’s like new things. And well, as a country, we just build things always. That’s part of a growing and a developing economy. But now we have to start looking at it more seriously and look at communities, regional differences and so on.
Bhargavi Rao (BR): I think we have not planned it properly, we are repeating the same mistakes. And we’re going to be leaving another set of local communities very dissatisfied with the plan.
MA: That’s Bhargavi Rao, a Senior Fellow and Trustee at Environment Support Group. She works at the intersections of community action with law, policy, planning and governance. Her work focuses on advancing environmental and social justice.
So, to kind of explain a little further, if you look at all the coal mining and the thermal sector, or the thermal power plants that came up, we, first of all, displaced and evicted forest-dependent communities. And we put them into labour where coal mining was happening and later on probably, even in some of the thermal power plants. And when the thermal power plants were sited and set up, again, we did not follow proper land acquisition measures or even pollution abatement measures. So, we’ve created problems around pollution and public health as well, and a lack of proper formal employment around those regions.
And now while we are transitioning into cleaner energy, first of all, we don’t have a plan in place for these people who are going to no longer have their jobs, whether it is formal or informal. Maybe for the formal people, they will have some plan in place, but definitely not the daily wage workers and other informal people working on a daily contract basis there, we don’t have a plan for them. And they have no skills to translate immediately into the renewable energy sector and the renewable energy plans are nowhere being planned in any of the abandoned mine sites or places where the thermal power plants are shut down. It’s not being planned in any of those places.
And on the other hand, wherever the renewable energy plants are being set up, this is largely in southern India and the western belt. Here again, we are displacing people who are completely into agriculture and pastoral activity, and a whole lot of other industries, rural industries, and cottage industries, which are dependent on agriculture and pastoralism. And these are communities, again, who have not been drawing too many resources. They are the ones who are actually leading very sustainable lives. But now in the name of climate change, the way and the scale at which we are approaching this transition is that we don’t have a proper plan And here, again, they are displaced from their lives and livelihood, they don’t have the skills to move on with other things and the solar or the wind energy sector is not creating so many jobs that you can accommodate all of them. And again, we are leaving a set of local communities hanging in the air with no plan in place. In the coming years, you will have two sections of the local communities both in the mining and thermal power abandoned areas and in areas where solar and wind energy and other renewable energy projects are coming up, where you have sections of the local community who can’t fit in anywhere. We are creating newer displacement and also these people will be pushed and they will fall through the cracks.
After 75 years of independence, while we are boasting about so many other advances, paying attention to gender and women, in particular, has not been on our agenda at all.
MA: Women are underrepresented in the energy sector. Mainstreaming women in the industry will require analysis of the existing gender gaps, which requires data collected and tabulated separately for women and men. This effort is still largely missing.
BR: Earlier this year, I was looking at an office memorandum that was passed by MNRE for Women’s Day with some activity to ensure greater women’s participation. Again, it was a halfhearted very tokenistic effort that they had come out with. And interestingly, the people who were on the committee were all men. So, we really have not thought about it at all, from an economic perspective of making women economically independent, building dignity in their life, and at the end of the day, securing health and good life well-being at the family level.
Unfortunately, if you look at the way people are being trained for renewable energy jobs, it is not a great landscape. So, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy does have this programme where they train Surya Mitras, Vayu Mitras and Varun Mitras, and these training are offered by a variety of institutions that are largely focused in urban areas. It is a three-month training programme. But if we see who are the ones who are doing it, they are definitely not the ones who are either in the area where the solar or the wind power is coming up or is scheduled to come up. Nor is it people who are being pushed out of their coal and thermal power livelihood.
A recent study by CEEW, also indicated the number of jobs that are currently in the sector. It’s about one lakh plus. Although many people have been trained over the last three or four years, not everybody is employed in this sector on a full-time basis. So, if we understand wind and solar power, the jobs are required only during installation. Once the installation is over, they require very few people to maintain and manage and monitor it. So, the ones who are trained, not all of them will be on this full-time job. It has become just like a little plumbing skill or electrician skill that people are learning and it is definitely not offering them long-term jobs. So, in a setting like this, we are again pushing people into the threshold of not being employable on a full-time basis. So, you will have a set of people who are multi-skilled, who will have to juggle many things on a daily basis just to keep their kitchen fires burning.
And I don’t think one model will fit across all states in the country. Every state needs to think of it in a very unique way, depending on the landscape, the agriculture practices, and the pastoral practices in each of these states. And if they can coexist with renewable energy. And if we can build skills accordingly, then I think we will secure just food security and energy security, but also security and a whole lot of dignified livelihoods.
MA: Balasubramanian from IISD sees some similarities between the growth of coal and the renewable energy sector. Some are good, and some are not so good.
BV: There are a few analogies, which I think are applicable. One is being the strong involvement of the private sector. This is something very noticeable when we saw this huge rollout of IPPs, or independent power producers in the 2010 on thermal power plants, and now we are seeing increased ambition from so many major private sector players on, say, setting up mainly solar PV and renewable energy in general. So, it’s been the involvement of private sectors and large private sectors taking on planning these big investments. So that is one analogy, which is sort of a good trend in the sense that the market has definitely shown interest in clean energy and which generally means more investors and more engagement and an ability to reach a bigger scale faster as opposed to something where the government is exclusively the only entity supporting it.
The more worrying similarity would be the very aggressive bids which are being placed. So, we all know that in 2017, the Standing Committee on Energy came out with a report on stranded or non-performing coal assets in India, and it said about 37 GW are at the risk of stranding. That was a result of years of poor financial planning, aggressive bidding, just building plants out much faster than what the demand is. And that resulted in all this sort of financial tensions within the energy sector.
There is a concern in various discussions and forums about some of the recent solar bids being over aggressive, and, later they will not provide the returns that’s expected. And in the case of solar, it’s particularly scary, because we all know that solar PV’s lifecycle is only 25 years or so. And the rate at which we have plans to build out this is not just like build 2050 or so, right? We are going to be building till 2070 – till the end of century there is going to be a massive increase and then replacement of the fleet. Every 25 years, and it’s a long process. If at some point, the financing of solar power renewable energy, is not done right, then we can be at a point say another 15- 20 year in the future, where the business just becomes difficult, there will be a lot of standard assets and it will sort of drive investors and new investments and new projects into it, which is a problem. So, yes, we have to scale up right now, but we have to also sustain the scale for decades into this century.
MA: The fossil fuel industry in the country is in one landscape, while the clean energy industry is booming in other parts of the country. How can we address this gap and the questions about skills, jobs and the overall ecosystem that the clean energy transition is bringing?
BV: One of the things that I think is important is for entities like the state, especially state governments, which are likely to be hit by this energy transition that will see a drop in their royalties, they must actively look at a wider development strategy, which is sort of multi-dimensional in nature and look to see how their particular economy or state can grow out of their fossil dependencies into new areas. This can be a one-to-one change, say, wherever there’s a mine you can put in a PV manufacturing facility and so on, but it can also be like tourism or manufacturing of certain goods or services of a certain kind and building these ecosystems.
The other aspect is basically, planning ahead in terms of tax revenues, and so on. One of the bigger concerns is the GST compensation. So, this is going to end in a few years. Many states are very dependent on revenues from fossil fuels, we don’t have a standardised fossil fuel taxation model linked to carbon and it is tied to various other commodities. So having an entity which can plan as a whole on how taxation can work, how the tax revenues can be planned, and something that can look at reinvesting revenues and do fiscal planning for the future. That would help a lot in overall improving the ecosystem of State governments which can get affected by the energy transition.
MA: In the context of coal mining, the rights of workers are still somewhat protected due to the presence of unions. It is debatable, but we still have some protection because of the presence of unions, but with a clean energy transition and the job shifts, the workers who will be involved in this particular sector may not have the backing of unions. How should we address that?
BV: See, again, the civil society that is talking about this. I don’t think we are anywhere close to even mobilising these people who work in the renewable energy sector because first of all, their numbers in which they work are very small. And the companies for whom they work obviously will not want them to be mobilised or to have been part of a union or association that will even talk about the rights of labour and payment and all of that. So, if you look at the kinds of companies who are largely in it, are people who already have a whole lot of stories of violations of labour problems provisions. So, it is a very scary and sad thing right now. Because there are no unions, something more important that we need to also keep in mind is there are a lot of accidents I hear that are happening while laying these solar parks and wind energy parks. And a lack of such a union also leaves these people with very little provision to access health care and get the right treatment at the right time. So, I guess it is left to the many environmental and social movements in the country and the civil society groups to take it up while they are firefighting so many other labour-related issues. This is definitely something that will be taken up, I’m sure.
See this happened in Germany, they went through the same thing the USA also went through the same thing. And after a lot of challenges, that’s when they started unionising and the local government also recognised the need for such unions. A lot more awareness is required, a lot more lobbying with the Members of Parliament and local MLAs in every state is required to acknowledge this and help move towards having unions for solar, wind and other renewable energy sectors.
MA: India had a target of 175 GW by 2022. 160 GW was meant to be fulfilled by solar and wind energy. But India later brought large-hydro projects under the ambit of renewable energy sources.
So as of November 30, 2022, the country has achieved 167 GW of renewable energy installed capacity – 104 GW from solar and wind, about 47 from large dams and the remaining from other sources. Including dams as a clean energy source is a topic of contention that we explored in episode five.
Large-scale solar and wind parks are the driving forces behind India’s ambitions. Bhargavi views the speedy pursuit of mega parks as risky.
BV: See there’s so much push towards utility-scale solar parks, it is only because the big players are involved in it. Like I said, the best solution is rooftop solar. It can be generated where I am living and working and playing, right? So, if the same amount of importance and some policy and law-making happens with respect to rooftop solar, a large amount of our needs will come from there. Then something else that we need to think about is we already have created so many unscientific and illegal landfills across the country, only a few are being bio-mined, a few are just covered up. So, these are places that could be considered for solar Even abandoned mines are places where we can considered for solar. So, these are conversations that have not happened at all, which need to happen.
Getting people to voice their concern is another major part that is lacking, local community participation is very, very crucial. They definitely understand the need for energy, but if this energy is coming at the cost of their lives and livelihoods, their voice, their complete, informed consent and participation is very, very crucial and that is not happening. And the fact that solar and wind have been removed from the purview of environmental clearances is a very, very concerning matter and it has to be taken up and probably some amount of rigorous evaluation has to take this.
Selna Saji (SS): So, at the highest level, India has exceeded all expectations with respect to the growth of the renewable electricity sector.
MA: Selna Saji is a Research Analyst at CEEW. She is an energy and environmental analyst focusing on renewable energy technologies.
SS: However, you can also see that there is a disproportionate focus on various segments within renewables when it comes to investment as well. For instance, out of the total investments that went into renewables in 2021, 42%, went into utility scale solar, but only 2% went into rooftop and one percent into wind industry. Now talking about the challenge that this energy transition has led to – a major challenge the industry has been facing in the last few years is the supply chain related issues. The growing demand, as well as the supply chain restrictions due to the pandemic has created a really unprecedented increase in price of various components and raw materials. And this is expected to continue for a while.
If you look at the initial target of the Indian government, out of the 100 GW of solar targets set by 20-22, 14 GW was supposed to come from rooftop solar. But if you look at the actual achievement, while we have achieved almost the target around 58 GW of solar, almost 90% of that comes from the large scale solar and the utility scale, the distributed sector has been lagging behind.
MA: Selna believes that distributed renewable energy solutions, such as rooftop solar, haven’t picked up well due to a lack of awareness and good financing solutions. We looked at various challenges for DREs in episodes 4 and 6.
Selna shares examples of what other countries are trying to ensure community participation.
SS: For example, in South Africa, the renewable energy procurement programme, they approve wind, solar and hydro projects and they task the IPP to contribute towards local community development. So, the government awards projects with the bidder partially based on the promises made by the companies to contribute towards economic development. So, that is a great example. And something that can be adapted in India for the reverse auctions that we conduct. So, the projects could need to fulfil or support the economic development of the community where the projects are located. It should ensure local job creation and local ownership, there’s a lot of ways in which that can be made possible.
Another example is from the US in Nevada and a few other states. There are a lot of examples where the tribal communities are also made part of the solar or wind projects either through co-development or co-ownership. So, these are some of the models even for larger utility scale plants that India can look at. But again, we would need a policy intervention for something like that to happen. So, this is definitely something we can look at and we can try to adapt especially now, when the scale is expected to be more. We have around 60 GW solar and almost 51 GW of wind. But then if we really are going to go 450 GW, without such programmes that also look at the community development, it will become very challenging to scale renewables especially given the land restrictions and the other challenges associated with such large-scale project development.
MA: We have different departments for undertaking different work as far as clean energy growth is concerned. But there is no single body or a comprehensive effort to address different facets of it? Do you think we need one body? Do you think we need one mechanism to look at it in a much more comprehensive manner?
BV: Yeah, this is a fascinating question, which has come up in so many different avenues, like policy dialogue, society discussions or consultations with officials and so on, that we need various departments and government bureaucracy talking with each other. Well, I don’t want to be deterministic in saying that we need one government entity, but I am certainly in support of a coordinated entity or coordinating more coordination between the various entities like the government. And this is particularly relevant for some issues, where I feel like a more centralised entity which coordinates between various ministries would be a useful thing. For example, resolving the power sector issues is centred around the distribution companies, resolving the finances, some sort of an entity which can talk to all these stakeholders and bring together more action or trust. So, the reason why I’m not advocating outright for a centralised body – one is that it is a very big issue. Energy transition is like a massive undertaking stretching over years and like at various levels of government.
Here’s the example that Bala shared. Solar-based irrigation is on the rise in India as a clean replacement for diesel irrigation pumps. Since solar pumps are cheaper to operate, there’s a risk of groundwater over-exploitation. Now, this space is at the intersection of multiple ministries – renewable energy, water and the agricultural ministry. If there’s not adequate coordination among all, a well intended solution could have drastic outcomes.
BV: When you’re thinking of an energy system of the future, perhaps the model way in which our ministries are divided itself does not make a lot of sense, right? If all of our energy is going to be just renewable energy, and we have ministers of power, coal, petroleum, natural gas and so on, that is sort of an inherent conflict by design. For example, take Coal India Limited (CIL). In their recently released action plan, they have said that they are going to become clean energy, for CIPL Coal India Limited is going to be a clean energy farm. And another example is NTPC, National Thermal Power Corporation, which has since dropped their expansion and are just NTPC. So, while these firms are looking to transition, the ministry should have some longer-term plan as to how they will transition. So that is one aspect where these ministers should look ahead into the future and how they can coordinate and this is perhaps an issue which goes beyond just the ministry. It is a wider bureaucratic rearrangement of our entire government, which sounds quite a long and very politically difficult process, but at the sort of issue level, this is what I had meant by a coordination.
If you’re building anything, any sort of investments, or development, or whatever it may be, it has to be centred around the communities and must be in consultation. And this is not just for solar power or anything, this is a sort of a wider process and practice that ought to be practised in everything – if you’re building a bridge, or if you’re building a factory that manufactures bottles or something, it’s still the land that’s being used, the waste, the environment.
So, we have this environment and social impact assessment, right? That is a sort of mandatory process that ought to be followed. Where we have been falling short is that it’s often being swept under the carpet, when we are seeking growth and that is clearly problematic. Yes, we may achieve targets right away if we take shortcuts like that, but at what cost. It will definitely cause much bigger problems later and so on.
MA: Thank you for listening to GigaWhat. If you know someone who loves stories about India’s environment or its clean energy journey, please share this series. Or you could just share it on social media.
This show was produced and scripted by my colleague Kartik Chandramouli,
Edited and mixed by Tejas Dayananda Sagar
Copy edits – Priyanka Shankar
Podcast production assistant – Sapna Verma
GigaWhat artwork – Pooja Gupta
Banner image: A woman passes a solar water pump in Bihar. Women are underrepresented in the energy sector. Mainstreaming women in the industry will require analysis of the existing gender gaps, which requires data collected and tabulated separately for women and men, say experts. Photo by Manish Kumar.