Impacts of renewable energy projects

Last Updated 27 February 2018, 05:28 IST

Globally, installed renewable power capacity has steadily increased from 820 GW in 2006 to 2,017 GW in 2016 at the rate of 8% annually, and is slated for further growth. Various countries are increasingly announcing national and sub-national policy instruments to expand the share of renewable power.

India plans to triple (approximately) its current renewable installation from 59 GW to 175 GW by 2022. Renewables are poised as the energy choice of the future because they allow us to continue economic development without sacrificing the environment. However, even as renewables seem to provide the solution to our growing need for energy and the pressing need for mitigating climate change, the picture is far from simple. These projects are increasingly being opposed by local people and civil society groups because they conflict with local livelihoods and have significant environmental impacts. Let's examine some of these impacts within the Indian context.  

Do ends justify the means?

Large-scale solar or wind energy farms require areas of contiguous land. The availability of land is contentious, especially in developing countries like India. Renewable energy projects compete with local livelihoods, access to land conservation interests and other development activities.

A wind or solar power project has a Plant Load Factor (PLF) of 18 to 20%. A thermal power plant has a PLF of 65-70%. Therefore, to generate the same quantity of electricity as a thermal power plant, a solar or wind-powered plant would need to operate at three times the capacity. As a result, renewable power projects require more land per MW than conventional sources of electricity. For example, a typical wind power project requires a land of about 15 to 20 acres per MW. This combined with the fact that most sites of high natural resource potential for wind and hydel projects are located in areas of high rainfall and rich biodiversity, complicates the picture.

Setting up a renewable energy project requires felling of trees, laying transmission lines and constructing a sub-station for relaying electricity to the grid. Wind turbines are massive structures that need to be hauled to higher altitudes thereby significantly affecting the ecology of the landscape. The project developers have to widen the access roads, often leading to debris in agricultural land thereby obstructing farming.

In high rainfall areas, these changes could lead to landslides, conflicts with local livelihoods, and massive soil erosion. Small hydropower dams are often considered renewable and the environmentally benign counterpart to large hydropower projects. Yet, diversion of river water can affect the water velocity and depth, reduce river flows, and severely minimise the habitat quality for fish and aquatic organisms.  

Poor monitoring mechanism

Karnataka has the highest potential for small hydropower projects across the country at 4,141 MW and has exploited 29% of its potential with an existing installation of 1,220.73 MW. Most of these projects are owned by private developers and are located in areas of high biodiversity in the Western Ghats and require clearing of forests and diverting rivers. For example, for the 3 MW Beedalli Mini Hydel Project located in the buffer zone of Pushpagiri Wildlife Sanctuary, a dam, head race tunnel, surge shaft, powerhouse and evacuation lines had to be built within the buffer zone of the national park. The 24 MW Kukke hydropower project, located at the confluence of Kumaradhara and Gundia rivers, has been a site of protest from local communities as it threatens their traditional livelihoods and also endangers a reserve forest.  

Further, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has exempted wind power projects and small hydropower projects that are less than five hectares in area from the mandatory requirement of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). EIA is a crucial indicator of the destruction of ecology and wildlife in a particular area, which is a key concern for conservationists. This poses a grave threat to the ecology of areas where renewable projects are located.

In India, renewable energy projects are required to gain consent from the panchayats. In most cases, the certificate of consent from panchayats provides mere lip service. The project developers often use empty claims of providing electricity and economic benefits to impoverished rural communities in order to jumpstart the projects.

There is no mechanism to monitor how much electricity will be provided and to how many households at the local level. A case in point is the 113 MW Andhra Lake Wind Power Project on the outskirts of Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra. The villagers who live next to the project site don't have access to electricity, even though the project threatens their livelihoods and the region's rich biodiversity.

Even as renewable power projects pose equal if not greater threat to ecological biodiversity and cause a wide-scale dispossession of lands and livelihoods, they are rarely critiqued. Some probable solutions include giving greater powers to the village panchayats and making EIA mandatory for all renewable energy projects. Additionally, giving electricity access for people who live in close proximity to renewable energy projects can also help. A greater attention to the social and environmental impacts of these projects shall go a long way in ensuring equitable and fair renewable energy development.  

(The author is a postdoctoral research fellow, ATREE, Bengaluru)

(Published 26 February 2018, 11:04 IST)

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