Large utility-scale solar parks are designed for techno-commercial viability. Social needs and sustainability are expected to just trickle down. Replacing coal with solar in this manner is neither sustainable nor just.
Lokesh Annadurai lives with his two school-going sisters and family of seven in a one-room house without cooking gas or running water. The brick house built by an NGO as part of tsunami rehabilitation has an electrical meter box, but no electricity. “We have a firewood-stove. We cook and eat before it gets dark,” says Lokesh. His two sisters have to huddle around a kerosene lamp to finish their school work after dinner. Lokesh’s hamlet of 16 Irular households is a medieval bubble in 21st century Tamil Nadu. Irulars – a Scheduled Tribe community – still live without basic amenities and toil in conditions of bondage in agricultural fields and brick kilns spread across Tamil Nadu.
Located atop a densely wooded dune in Kanchipuram’s picturesque Cheyyur region, the hamlet is barely 2km from the busy Chennai-Pondicherry East Coast Road and is anything but remote.
Had it not been stalled by community opposition, a 4,000 MW coal-powered ultra mega power project (UMPP) would have come up on the farmland behind Lokesh’s home. But even that power would not have reached them, says T Pandian, a coconut farmer and Lokesh’s employer. “The land they live on is classified as a wetland in revenue records, and electricity cannot be given unless it is reclassified,” he explains. Only the powerful can rig the system to get such reclassifications done.
Project after centralised mega project is set up ostensibly to reach electricity to the homes of unreached Indians. The reality, though, is that electricity flows are negotiated through social biases, along caste and rural-urban lines, rather than need.
Solar dreams, local nightmares
Using ‘climate emergency’ as an excuse now, India’s celebrated rollout of solar power, with its emphasis on utility-scale projects, is repeating the mistakes of erstwhile grandiose, ‘monumental’ projects like large hydel and thermal power plants. The controversial draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020, proposes to exempt solar parks from having to assess environmental and social impacts or undergo public hearings.
India has set itself a target of installing 175 GW of renewable energy (RE) capacity, including 100 GW from solar, by 2022. According to private research firm Mercom, “At the end of 2019, cumulative solar installations reached almost 35.7 GW.” More than 31 GW of this was through large-scale projects.
Intentions matter. If environmental and social goals are the intention, energy transitions – from fossil fuel to RE, in this case – have to be designed using techno-social criteria and after assessing impacts. India’s RE project designs are preoccupied with RE hardware, hardware financing, and global carbon dividends. They ignore local social, environmental and political dimensions of such transitions leading to adverse local outcomes.
Unless redefined, India’s solar dreams – of utility scale solar parks – will roll out as an investor-friendly, supply-side technical intervention that will perpetuate India’s perverted social status quo.
Hundreds of millions of Indians like Lokesh have virtually non-existent environmental footprints. Despite that, driven by excessive and wasteful consumption by an elite minority, humanity is annually consuming more resources than what the earth can produce in a year.
Supply augmentation through RE needs to prioritise energy access for the low-footprint majority. Such access should go beyond servicing their basic amenities to supporting productive activities that can improve their overall quality of life. This improvement will mean a larger footprint. Considering the carbon and ecological constraints, this enlargement can be accommodated only by simultaneously downsizing demand at the top end of the economic spectrum.
But global governments are weak on demand-side strategy. For instance, air conditioner sales in India’s rapidly urbanising market are expected to soar from 26.3 million room ACs (2016) to 1 billion in 2050. Just that will require 1,890 Terawatt hours of electricity. India will have to install power plants capable of supplying 1.5 times the country’s current total annual consumption just to power ACs in 2050.
The infrastructure required to cater to these ever-increasing demands, even if met by RE, will infringe on the rights of communities, future generations and the environment.
Big trouble with big solar
Kamuthi, in the dry karisal (black clay) lands of Ramanathapuram’s coastal plains, is home to a solution-impacted community. Here, democracy and environment have lost out to a solar project.
Adani Green Energy, whose sister concern wants to operate the world’s largest coal mine in Australia, has a 648 MW solar project spread over more than 3,000 acres. Where Lokesh is condemned to live in darkness because of ‘difficulties’ in reclassifying the ‘wetland’, his house sits on, the district collector of Ramanathapuram has reclassified hundreds of acres of wetland for Adani’s industrial use.
Powering the world with renewables is easier than separating the Indian farmer from his or her land. M Harikrishnan, a Cheyyur farmer, who was active in the fight against the 4,000 MW coal Ultra Mega Power Project (UMPP) sums it up: “Coal, nuclear, solar. How does it matter? No farmer would want to part with his land, even for a large cash compensation because cash will be spent. That is the nature of money.”
Ramanathapuram is famed for its centuries-old kanmais – irrigation tanks – that trap water and extend the farming period in this arid, but fertile land.
Land holdings are small and landlessness is high. But the region’s thriving livestock economy, specialising in hardy native sheep and goat breeds, helps residents get by.“Goats are low-maintenance and no expense. Even elderly women who raise a few goats can sell one in an emergency to get cash,” says E Devendran, a 30-year-old organiser with Naam Thamilar Katchi, a regional political party.
“Farmers allow, even pay for, goats to graze on private lands because they fertilise the fields with their droppings. The fallow lands and the kanmai edges have enough fodder.” says Seeman Thangaraj, a Madurai-based farmer, who breeds native bulls and goats.
But Adani has fenced off nearly 5,000 acres, cutting off access to grazing grounds and government lands, including kanmais, ooranis (drinking water ponds), streams and water courses. The goats can no longer go there.
The dirty truth about solar power
The notion that solar plants produce electricity is powerful, but deceptive. It hides the energy flows in open land — through vegetation, animals, birds, humans and livestocks — and invisibilises the fact that people are already tapping into these energy flows. A solar power plant may convert some of the sun’s energy into useful electricity. But it also disrupts the local energy cycle, with impacts on human and other life.
“Putting 5,000 acres, including public waterbodies off-limits for livestock and people is bound to have had consequences on the local economy, particularly on the domestic economies of the poor,” says Thangaraj. Whether such consequences are worth it, for whom, and if they are manageable are questions that can be answered only through prior assessment and public consultation.
Adani was allowed to set up with no assessment of the impacts the solar park would have on the region’s agriculture, water security and livelihoods.
In 2017, Kamuthi villagers raised a big noise about plunging water levels due to Adani’s operations. Adani was extracting 2,00,000 litres of water daily from a village near the Gundar river.
Following a high-decibel public protest, the company was ordered to stop extracting groundwater from that location. Now, the company desalinates groundwater from its site using Reverse Osmosis (RO) plants. RO plants are energy guzzlers and polluting.
According to a worker at one of the units, the plant’s highly toxic saline wastewater is discharged directly on land. Such disposal is illegal and will poison the land. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s online license database has no record of licenses issued to Adani’s RO plants. The 648 MW-power plant’s licenses also expired in March 2018. As on date, the entire operation in Kamuthi is illegal. Emails sent to Adani Green Energy seeking clarification on their operations in Kamuthi have not been answered.
Good sunshine wasted
In its May 2019 report, the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services observed that land-use change, followed by climate change, has been the most powerful driver of ecosystem collapse. Humanity’s unsustainable demand for goods and services is the biggest cause for destructive land-use change.
A solar electricity strategy that ignores this reality and focuses on supply augmentation and on keeping bankers and investors happy is doomed to fail. Worse, it will leave in its wake parched and colonised lands, displaced livelihoods and impoverished communities that are more vulnerable to the unfolding climate mayhem. For the solar opportunity to succeed, the strategy needs to be driven by demand-side considerations aimed at prioritising quality of life improvements for those, like Lokesh, who most need it.
Because of its distributed availability, solar energy is inherently democratic. Utility scale solar projects set up with little local relevance and no due diligence waste this potential. From ramming hydel, nuclear and thermal projects down the throats of unwilling communities, the new era will see the violation of rights for ushering in the solar revolution.
The disasters to come then will be solar-powered.