According to reports, India is blessed with a variety of these clean renewable energy alternatives – biomass, solar energy, wind energy and hydro power. This has encouraged the Government of India to set ambitious targets for renewable energy.
The National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) has set an ambitious goal of a one per cent annual increase in renewable energy generation. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNSM) has set its own ambitious target of adding 1GW of capacity between 2010 and 2013 and seeks to increase combined solar capacity from 9MW in 2010 to 20GW by 2022. However, India’s interest and efforts in promoting renewable energy may soon create newer sustainability concerns. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy appears to have overlooked the growing conflict between renewable energy and land.
Land is an already scarce resource in India, with demand from farmers to industrial houses to service institutions and the Government. To this list another claimant has been added; many forms of green energy, especially solar, wind and biomass, rely on huge tracts of land in order to be viable. Setting up renewable energy plants can lead to both direct land transformation that comes with the setting up of the project, and land degradation created by pollutants from fuel and material cycles associated with running these plants.
The increased demand of land is met in many cases through the diversion of land from agriculture and the forestry sector. Indian farmers engulfed in poverty are forced to engage in distress sales or those who have been short-sighted have made it easy for private companies to acquire agricultural land for setting up renewable energy projects. The support extended by Government has also been a common cause.
In Himachal Pradesh, for instance, the hillside forests have been bearing the brunt of the desire to increase the potential of renewable energy.
In the last three decades, more than 6,000 hectares of forests have been destroyed for hydro power projects or for laying power transmission lines.
To put all this in perspective, for solar energy alone, India’s ambitious target is to produce 20GW of power by 2022. The aim was not just to provide an alternate renewable energy option but also to utilise large tracts of wasteland in hot sunny areas.
However, some of JNSM’s initial projects have shown that State governments have helped private companies acquire productive agriculture land to set up solar thermal and photovoltaic units. The dedication of land area near substations for solar cell installations might edge out other necessities that require land.
For example, the generation of electricity from photovoltaic solar panels or the solar tower requires vast amounts of land, and these panels must be built in specific regions in order to achieve maximum efficiency. Typically, a coal power plant requires 2023 sq. m of land per MW for plant installation, whereas the land area required per MW of installed solar power is around 20,234 sq. m.
Most of the wasteland, which could have been utilised to set up solar energy plants, is not connected with roads, and providing connectivity means huge infrastructure costs which inhibit companies from setting up plants there.
In context of bioenergy, the National Biofuel Policy in India has set an indicative target of 20 per cent ethanol and biodiesel in transportation fuel by 2017. The Planning Commission’s ‘Vision 2020’ report called for the plantation of non-edible oil-yielding plants in large areas of waste and degraded land.
Although the Government says no agricultural land or food crops will be diverted for production of biofuel, businesses often target productive farmland.
Instances of farmland, particularly that belonging to small farmers, being diverted for production of biofuel crops like jatropha are not uncommon. This and the possibility of increasing the use of oilseeds and other foodgrains for biofuel, could impact other goals like food security as productive tracts move away from foodgrains production to biofuel generation.
For these reasons, there should be clearly defined policy and mandatory usage of Geographical Information System (GIS) for land use, land cover analysis and identification of wasteland for projects while mapping the renewable energy potential over different regions. The Government could also take into consideration renewable energy resource availability as well as land and water uses. This could further be integrated with other concerns on land acquisition.
As more land per square metre is required for every watt of solar and wind energy produced compared to fossil fuel energy, a policy mandating the dual use of land for such projects should be studied.
Indian Government agencies could draw from their own experiences and those of various other nations that have gone through these stages in their quest for non-fossil fuel-based energy.
At the same time, it is essential to prevent the misuse of the Urgency Clause in the Land Acquisition Act, restricting its application to exceptional cases.
The setting up of an independent and representative regulatory authority at the State level to ensure strict compliance of land use norms could be explored. Regulation could also be used not only to mitigate negative impacts and maximise opportunities, but also to strengthen property rights and greater community consultation.
Economic instruments like a tax on land being bought or claimed for renewable energy, similar to a carbon tax, could be applied. This tax could be calculated on the basis of loss of biodiversity, and possibly other factors, and would create an economic disincentive for increased land use.Although this might have the effect of severely limiting the expansion of some forms of renewable energy such as biomass, it would also force companies to focus their efforts on discovering more land-friendly forms of biomass energy.
Subsidies on purchase of wasteland for setting up renewable energy plants may further incentivise the use of wastelands and lessen the diversion of land from agriculture and forestry.
No coal is all very well, but solar power should not take up productive land.