Balancing renewable energy projects and food requirements - GulfToday

Balancing renewable energy projects and food requirements

Meena Janardhan

Writer/Editor/Consultant. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of environmental journalism and publishing.

India Solar

Renewable energy installations can cause significant damage to wildlife, natural habitats and critical ecosystem services.

As India plans a diverse energy landscape with capacities from hydro, nuclear, solar, wind, and bioenergy, there are concerns over large-scale renewable energy projects using agricultural and ecologically sensitive land, posing environmental and socio-ecological risks, a Mongabay-India report states.

Citing a study published in the Nature journal in 2022, conducted by The Nature Conservancy (TNC-India) and Microsoft, the Mongabay-India report points out that there is a concern over how India will manage its dual priorities: achieving renewable energy targets while safeguarding food security in a country with a rapidly growing population. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar projects demand more land, often three to twelve times more, than that required for fossil fuel-based energy generation.

The Mongabay-India report points out that currently, India’s non-fossil fuel installed capacity, including hydro and nuclear energy, is at 184 GW and the country needs 177 GW of renewable energy capacity in the next seven years – that’s more than 25 GW per year – to achieve its goal of 500 GW (gigawatt) of renewable energy capacity by 2030. Juxtaposed to this, the report says that as per the latest NITI Aayog projections, India’s total foodgrain demand is expected to increase to 215 million tonnes by 2033-34 to feed its population. In 2030, the estimated demand for food grain will be 252.05 million tonnes for the entire country, with 171.68 million tonnes needed in rural areas and 80.37 million tonnes in urban areas. The supply projection for the same period is 350.42 million tonnes.

According to the quoted study, ‘An Artificial Intelligence Dataset for Solar Energy Locations in India,’ in India, over 74% of solar development In India is built on landcover types that have natural ecosystem preservation, or agricultural value. The study’s abstract highlights that rapid development of renewable energy sources, particularly solar photovoltaics (PV), is critical to mitigate climate change. Given the large footprint projected to meet renewables energy targets, the potential for land use conflicts over environmental values is high. To expedite development of solar energy, land use planners will need access to up-to-date and accurate geo-spatial information of PV infrastructure. As per the study, more than 74% of solar projects were on land with ecological preservation or agricultural value – 67.6% of agricultural land and 18.7% of natural habitat – with 38.6% of agricultural land having the potential to cultivate seasonal crops along with 28.95% of the land having plantation crop/orchards.

The study further points out that despite the policy commitments in India, many other studies have also questioned the land-based targets for solar energy deployment and have highlighted the difficulties related to disputes over land use. Renewable energy requires a large amount of space. If these energy installations aren’t sited carefully, they can cause significant damage to wildlife, natural habitats and critical ecosystem services and even generate greenhouse gas emissions that reduce their climate benefits.

Despite the recognition of these challenges policy makers and governments have struggled to maintain robust geospatial information on the rapid expansion of renewable energy technologies, the study adds. Access to these data will be critical to assess past impacts and planning to avoid future conflicts. At present, there is limited information that is compiled and publicly available on the location of utility-scale solar photovoltaic projects across the country. Most location information for a project is typically limited to its associated jurisdictional boundary. The lack of more specific information, such as project boundaries, makes it difficult to identify factors that may be driving land suitability for such projects, and thus deprive policy-makers of the relevant information to expedite development. In addition, without such information, it is difficult to understand the nature of land-use changes driven by solar energy in India.

This is particularly significant as some land-use changes from solar development (e.g., from biodiversity-rich habitats, or those places that are important for agriculture or pasture lands for local grazing-dependent communities) may lead to socio-ecological land conflicts and ultimately slow the transition to renewable energy.

However, the study does say that India has a considerable potential for solar energy generation (~550 GW) on rooftops, artificial water bodies (such as canal tops and reservoirs), and spaces along national and state highways. Leveraging these resources could significantly reduce the land required for renewable energy expansion and could result in fewer social, ecological, and environmental impacts compared to land with high ecological, agricultural, livelihood and biodiversity value. But it emphasises that harnessing renewable energy on these less conflict-prone lands won’t happen by chance; it requires intentional effort.

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