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Whither land? Solar park needs 6 acres, wind park 50 to produce 1 MW; coal plant 1 acre

By Shankar Sharma* 

The global unanimity in the critical need to move towards 100% renewable energy (RE) scenario at the earliest, has thrown up a stiff challenge to our own country in mobilising all the needed physical resources.
A recent article has once again highlighted the massive land area requirement for a 100% RE scenario, assuming that the global vested political interests will allow such a 100% RE scenario even as late as 2060-70. There have been many such articles in recent years, asking for our attention to many such serious issues of concern to global societies.
Whereas, the policy /decision makers in India never seem to have given any prominence to the associated societal costs/risk in diverting forest/ agricultural lands to all other so-called developments activities, including the coal mines, reservoirs, power plants, power lines, waste management facilities etc. in the power sector, our own past experience on land based issues w.r.t fossil fuels, hydel plants and nuclear power plants may appear insignificant when compared to such looming concerns w.r.t solar and wind power parks.
Some of the associated concerns/ issues can be reiterated in this context.
The typical land requirement for a solar power plant, say in a solar power park, is known to be in the range of 4-6 acres per MW of installed power capacity, and about 50 acres of land space per MW of wind power. This is in comparison to about 1 acre/MW of coal power plant. Assuming that India may plan to install 30 lakh MW of solar and wind power capacity, say by 2050, the actual land diversion needed can be few thousands of sq km.
We also need to take into objective account that a typical 1 MW capacity solar PV plant can generate only about 25% of the annual electricity as compared to 1 MW of coal power plant. Similarly, wind power turbines also generate much less annual electricity than a 1 MW coal power plant.
Assuming that our political leaders will allow 100% RE scenario in India by 2060-70, there will be a massive, and probably unbearable, pressure on land resources.
Since almost all of such land diversion has to happen from the existing forest and agricultural lands, the environmental gains are likely to get through 100% RE transformation may get negated by the loss of forest and agricultural lands resources.
Solar and wind power technologies also have few other environmental issues such as challenges to wildlife and habitat, a lot more material requirement, waste management, water requirement for cleaning of solar panels, local heat islands effects from solar panels, demand for rare earth metals etc.

What can we do about this conundrum?

  • We must aim to produce as much electricity from non-land based RE projects as possible. Roof top solar PV systems have tremendous potential in this regard.
  • Assuming that about 40 crore housing units may be required to accommodate about 1.4 Billion people by 2050, 20 crore housing units can be considered suitable for such rooftop SPV systems of an average area of 1000 sq. ft. At an average potential of 1 kW per 100 sq. ft, these 20 crore houses can provide 20 lakh MW of solar power capacity. Other kinds of buildings such as government offices, educational institutions, railway stations, bus stations, airports, sports stadia, godowns of FCI, industrial sheds etc many more millions of solar power capacity.
  • Since they are distributed all over the country, they become highly democratic; lead to least T&D losses; of much better voltage profile; without needing dedicated transmission lines etc.
  • A large number of consumers can participate in such electricity production activity, thereby reducing the STATE's financial burden;
  • Similarly, solar powered IP sets are most suitable for the agricultural sector, which accounts for about 25% of the country's annual electricity. These SPV systems can also feed the excess electricity produced back to the grid, thereby providing an additional revenue model for our farmers;  
  • Solar PV systems on water surfaces, such as lakes, rivers, reservoirs and ponds etc. can eliminate the need for land diversion.
Mini/micro/smart grids, which will optimally use the locally available resources, and contribute least to the ecological footprint. Even if we assume that the political willingness across the world will allow the possibility of moving over to 100% renewable energy (RE) based scenarios by 2050/60, it may not suffi
We must aim to produce as much electricity from non-land based RE projects, especially rooftop solar PV systems, as possible
The enormous number of solar PV modules, wind turbines, batteries, bio-energy units, geo-thermal units, hydropower units, computers, control systems, communication systems, protection systems, energy meters, associated transmission and distribution systems etc. required for such a scenario with a business-as-usual approach by 2050 will be so much overwhelming that we may end up being the losers anyway.
Because, the total energy required by 2040/50 at the global level would have reached such high levels, if we continue with the energy demand growth rate as it is now (which may mean a CAGR of 3 to 5% between now and 2050).
Even if the global energy demand growth rate between now and 2050 is assumed to grow only @ 1%, the total energy demand would have increased by about 100% by 2050 as compared to that of the demand today.
Even to meet this much energy demand the global economy has to manufacture an enormous number of appliances/ gadgets/ machineries (to generate and distribute commercial forms of energy such as solar power, wind energy, bioenergy, hydel power etc.).
Such a vast economic activity alone at the global scale will require the mining and processing of large quantities of the ores of iron, copper, aluminium and many kinds of rare earth minerals, which in turn will require large amounts of energy, most of which may have to come from conventional technology energy sources such as coal power technology.
Hence, by 2050, the total CO2 emissions (or the total GHG emissions) would have gone much beyond 450 PPM as against the desired level of 350 PPM. And the CO2, which would have been accumulating in the atmosphere during this period, will last for hundreds of years. The ability of various natural elements to control the temperature rise would have been severely curtailed.
Many of the natural processes, such as glacier melting and ocean acidification, would have become irreversible. The forests and vegetation cover would have to come down considerably, and the pollution/ contamination may exceed various limits.
Hence, there is a critical need not only to contain our electricity/energy demand, but also the demand for all kinds of materials to a level wherein they can be sustainably met without compromising on the all important ecology.
An unlimited growth in electricity/ energy demand cannot be met even by a 100% RE scenario on a sustainable basis. Hence, adequate focus on very high efficiencies in all segments of our electricity/energy sector, and optimal demand side management should become a fundamental policy plank.
In the larger context of calamitous impacts projected due to the growing climate emergency, a resource constrained and hugely populous country of ours has no alternative but to preserve and enhance our forest and agricultural lands to feed our people and provide a healthy environment.
The kind of uncertainties such as erratic rainfall pattern, floods, heatwaves etc., which are already being witnessed across many parts of our country, as well as in Europe, Pakistan and China in recent weeks, has made it imperative to minimise the land diversion, and keep as much of it under vegetation cover as possible.
A discussion paper in this regard is enclosed for ready reference.
Can our people hope that our policy/ decision makers will take these critical issues into serious consideration, and accordingly prepare a truly diligent National Energy Policy to ensure overall welfare of all sections of our society, including flora, fauna and general environment?
---
*Power and climate policy analyst. This article is based on the author's representation to the Chairman and vice chairman, NITI Aayog, with copies to members of the Union Cabinet, Government of India

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