To reach net zero by 2050, India needs clean energy installations on land the size of Bihar

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If India were to implement a net zero target by 2050, an area of ​​at least about 65,000 km² – roughly half the size of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu – is needed for the large-scale solar and wind power installation, a latest report has found.

The to study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis estimated that solar and wind infrastructure could together occupy 65,000 km² to 95,000 km² of land, which represents 1.97% to 2.88% of the total landmass of the India of 32.8 lakh km². To put it in perspective, 95,000 km² of land is the size of Bihar.

The report notes the potential for land use conflict that may arise over renewable energy installations, even in sparsely populated areas, slowing the deployment of infrastructure across the country.

A country can be considered net-zero when its greenhouse gas emissions are sequestered by natural or artificial carbon sinks. According to the United Nations, the entire world must reach net zero emissions by 2050 to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. India is under tremendous pressure to announce its own net zero targets, but it has resisted it so far.

Ambitious targets

In August, India declared that “reaching net zero on its own is not enough” while declaring that developed countries have usurped far more than their fair share of the global carbon budget.

The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis report said that “whether or not India commits to an official goal of net zero emissions by mid-century this year, it will continue to add generation capacity. solar and wind power very substantial over the next three decades “. He stressed that part of this capacity “will replace thermal production, but that part will be necessary to meet demographic and economic growth”.

Charles Worringham, researcher and guest contributor at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, pointed out that “the upper end of the land use range is deliberately generous to leave a lot of leeway for planning.”

“This is a precautionary approach to planning and putting in place smart land use policies today for future renewable infrastructure,” said Worringham, author of the report, in a communicated.

The report examined the land use implications of India’s energy transition and the important choices regarding the location of these resources. It reviewed current land use studies and then described likely future needs based on mid-century scenarios presented in recent reports from the Council for Energy, Environment and water, the Energy and Resources Institute, Shell and the International Energy Agency.

India has ambitious energy transition goals to push for the large-scale adoption of clean energy. It plans to install a capacity of 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022 and 450 GW by 2030. However, as the rooftop solar sector has failed to take off, the Indian government has focused on large solar and wind power projects – a movement that experts are expressing concern about because of its potential impact on affected communities and biodiversity.

Worringham compared the effects of the expansion of large-scale renewables to those of meeting electricity needs from additional coal-fired energies and noted that locations for renewable power generation can be chosen based on India’s preferred social and environmental criteria and can be widely distributed across the country.

“Additional charcoal can only come from already heavily mined districts or new coal blocks, which are often found in significant forest areas and where displacement of adivasi (tribal) communities is a problem,” he said. . “Renewable energy also does not permanently alter land and natural resources in the same way as coal. “

Pranab Ranjan Choudhury, who is the host of the Center for Land Governance, a think tank working on land issues, said the minimum area required for renewable energy projects, according to the Institute for Energy estimate Economics and Financial Analysis, is greater than the geographic area of ​​at least 20 Indian States and Union Territories (at individual and not combined level).

Wind power is an important part of India’s clean energy plans. Photo credit: Jitendra Parihar (Thomson Reuters Foundation) / Flickr

Although the issues surrounding renewable energy land use in India have emerged in recent years, they are far from new in other parts of the world. The report pointed out that as early as 1979 it was explicitly described as a potential problem in a US Department of Energy report, and it subsequently emerged as a problem in several countries.

For example, the Netherlands introduced restrictions on large-scale solar farms in 2019 due to concerns about competition with agriculture while in the Asian region this has been debated in Indonesia and Japan, several aspects of land use for electricity emerged as concerns in a recent survey of local governments.

Manage renewable energies

The report explained that the amount of land required for different types of power generation is much less than the impacts they have, and therefore the widespread solar resource, in particular, gives India the opportunity to locate the solar generation in a widely distributed model, and base location decisions on multiple economic, social and environmental criteria.

However, on the other hand, he said charcoal can only be mined where it exists, and any new charcoal would be heavily concentrated in some of India’s most important forests. like the region of Hasdeo Arand in Chhattisgarh, which has been the subject of much controversy in recent years.

For example, although thermal power plants exist across India, their fuel supply is highly concentrated in the eastern coal basins and their transport networks are fixed. Thus, the report explains that India may choose to build a highly distributed network of renewable power generation facilities of varying size, placing many facilities close to existing load centers and transmission infrastructure, as this would limit the need for new power lines and substations, which also occupy land, while potentially reducing overall system costs.

“Properly managed renewable energy production can coexist with other land uses and, unlike coal-based energy, it does not fundamentally alter the land during its use or after its final decommissioning,” the report says. .

The report pointed out that although a net-zero India in 2050 is “likely to require less land for renewable energy production than some estimates suggest, the total land area is nonetheless still significant and so is a transition. important should not continue without policies to optimize land use. ”. while calling on the Indian government and state governments to develop a framework that optimizes land use decisions for renewable energy in the decades to come, rather than making such decisions on an ad hoc basis.

Explaining further, Choudhury pointed out that land has been at the center of global debates around achieving net zero, with an area equivalent to the size of Brazil being deemed necessary to meet forest restoration goals.

“Given the current land use and users, as well as the increasing competition and conflicts already seen when uses or users are drastically changed, securing that much land will be a daunting task, all the more so when megaprojects require them in larger plots. Even though we have a 30 year schedule, the competitions are only increasing around the use of land for food production, infrastructure, housing and urbanization and adding other layers to this competition may surely bring more complexity and conflict, ”Choudhury said. Mongabay-India.

To address land issues, the report recommended minimizing total land use requirements for renewables with measures such as “promoting offshore wind, rooftop solar, and solar power. solar energy on water bodies (mainly artificial) where net environmental benefits can be ensured ”.

The caution regarding the choice of artificial water bodies is due to the fact that India has already experimented with panels above irrigation canals, but the report stressed that it is crucial to identify the water bodies. water where floating solar produces the net benefits (reduced evaporation, prevention of algae blooms) outweigh the potential damage. (reduced oxygenation, less photosynthesis, leaching). “Man-made bodies of water where the water quality is often sub-optimal should be the focus,” he said.

Solar energy is considered clean energy, but large solar projects are increasingly leading to land disputes. Photo credit: Jitendra Parihar (Thomson Reuters Foundation) / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Alternative system

Choudhury stressed that solutions must be explored that avoid uses and users in terrestrial ecosystems (offshore options). Or they should be choices that integrate energy production into the existing land use logic, as the study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis recommends.

“A uniformly distributed, decentralized and integrated system of renewable energy production involving small farmers and producers may be an alternative system that needs to be explored, while adequately considering potential ecological and societal costs and benefits,” noted Choudhury.

The report also called for optimizing the identification and assessment of land for renewable energy production by developing clear environmental and social criteria to assess potential sites, comprehensive assessments and ranking of potential sites against these. criteria in advance and independently of tenders or project proposals, encouraging the selection of the best ranked locations in tenders, limiting undue regional concentration and supporting renewable generation widely distributed at different scales.

This is crucial as India recently reached an installed capacity of 100 GW of renewable energy and experience to date and plans for the near future show that these clean energy projects are concentrated in certain regions of the country. .

This article first appeared on Mongabay.


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