Flip side of large-scale solar power

Many years ago, a friend, Chockalingam Muthiah, built a home that was not connected to the grid. It is fascinating that his house runs all appliances powered by roof-top solar panels. It cost Rs 4.2 lakh to generate 1.5 KW of solar power in 2006 when solar power was still picking up momentum. Over the last 13 years, it has been hassle-free. His house is often in the news as a model house -- an eco-friendly home that is completely decentralised for resources such water, electricity and managing waste.

It has been many years since roof-top solar power was first introduced and Karnataka has emerged as one of the best states for setting up roof-top solar projects. SARAL -- the State Rooftop Solar Attractiveness Index 2018-19 survey released by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy earlier this year ranked Karnataka at the top with a score of 78.8 among the 29 (now 28, after J&K became a Union Territory) states in the country.

Despite this, roof-top solar power installations have not picked up and power is brought in over the national grid from long distances through practices destructive to the planet. With the threat of climate change and global warming, there is an urgent need to build resilient, self-sustaining, decentralised cities, towns and villages. Instead, the state has aggressively promoted large utility-scale solar power parks, with the biggest of them – Shakti Sthala -- being located in Pavagada. The state has taken key steps, set goals and timelines to achieve this gigantic solar park, spread over 13,000 acres, to produce 2GW of solar power.

Erik Solheim of the World Resources Institute recently tweeted that “Three of the five biggest solar plants in the world are now in India. This is how India has reinvented itself as a clean energy powerhouse.” And a little film accompanies his tweet depicting how India is a great example for the world to transit from coal. 

While the dawn of this massive solar park is celebrated and sounds like a success, there is a darker side to it. A visit to the area and conversations with local people reveals that all is not well. Locals say they were ‘persuaded’ to give up their land for the lease period of 28 years. Neither a systematic process nor any consultation preceded the ‘negotiation.’ 

The lease pays Rs 21,000 per acre per year, with a 5% increase every year. It means little to small and marginal farmers with small chunks of land. Big farmers have benefitted and reinvested the money to provide a variety of services to the solar developers.

Although every household leasing the land was promised a job, few have managed to get one, and these are daily wage contracts. Labour is largely from outside. Many locals have migrated out in search of jobs, leaving behind senior citizens. 

Lands are levelled, lined with reinforced concrete, fenced with barbed wire and guarded, with no possible entry. Pastoralists have lost access to grazing pastures and have to walk long distances in search of pasture and water. Many have been forced to sell their flock.

Water security is far from assured with the levelling. Women walk long distances to buy clean drinking water. Fluorosis is common in the region and disability evident in children and senior citizens.  

Household incomes have come down, say the locals. The farm lands that provided greens or tubers with a spell of rain are beyond access and the nutrition levels among the population remains a concern. 

Small tea shops run by women dot the landscape. Ghutka, cigarettes, biscuits and tea draw truck drivers and labourers alien to the region as they take a break from work while looking into their phones.

The area has suffered long periods of drought and the agricultural research centre in Pavagada working on drought resistant crops was a hope, according to some farmers. But now, with the land locked-in for 28 years and absolutely no possibility of any vegetation, the locals fear the soil will deteriorate.

Pavagada has abundant solar energy. Water and food production remain a challenge. It is time to seriously evaluate the decisions made in installing such large-scale solar parks. A study published earlier this year in Nature  shows that energy and food production can co-exist. It describes how a variety of vegetables and grass can be grown under the panels. 

With concerted efforts, energy, food production and water security can be combined. Incorporating farming and animal husbandry into energy production has other benefits, too. Vegetation and animal dung helps keep soil enriched, thereby sustaining local traditional livelihoods that are less carbon-intensive.

The local stories call for collaboration across ministries and departments to address such rural predicaments. Policies need re-examination to ensure that food and energy production go hand in hand and not drive away a section of the community into adversity.

Roof-top solar energy harvesting must be made mandatory and binding in urban areas for buildings starting from a certain feasible size of roof area.

Government institutions, apartment complexes, corporate buildings, private institutions who can be self-reliant for their power should set an example. 

The political leadership has to be open to decentralisation and encourage innovative ideas. Scientists, farmers, hydrologists, anthropologists, historians and others have to be brought on board to ensure a holistic approach in finding solutions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks of 450 GW of non-fossil fuel-based energy, but this is far-fetched given a variety of challenges, such as land availability, evacuation of power, power purchase through distribution companies, etc. But with people’s participation and a new imagination, at least a quarter of it may be achieved, and in a just and humane way.

 

(The writer is an independent researcher and consultant, and works at the intersections of community action with law, policy, planning and governance)

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