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Indian authorities 'ignoring' renewable energy sources not requiring high voltage power lines

By Shankar Sharma* 

Recent media reports greatly appreciating a recent order of the Supreme Court bench on climate action in India should also be seen in the context of threats to the Great Indian Bustard. The judgement is being hailed as very important for the success of climate action in India. The associated observation by the honourable Court that climate crisis impacts citizens’ right to life is being deemed as critical in the long-term welfare of our people.
It is being viewed as a landmark judgement, as it insists on the need to take action to avert the worst of the crisis within the legal framework. As has been commented upon, the important ruling has expanded the scope of fundamental rights to include “the right to be free from adverse effects of climate change.’’
To quote from a report, “While the SC has to be lauded for recognising the right to be free from the effects of climate change, the real challenge is how such a right is to be enforced”.
The recent view of the Chief Justice of India that “the understanding of people's problems will make us better lawyers and judges, not just legal knowledge” is also being greatly admired at a time when the people of the country seem to have run out of various options to be heard by our authorities on multiple life threatening issues, such as imminent ecological disasters because of high impact projects, power transmission lines, conventional technology power plants -- coal, nuclear and dam based power plants -- even in ecologically sensitive areas, the continued diversion of forest lands to various kinds of projects, destruction of fresh water sources etc.
In this larger context, there is a need to assist the Court in deliberating on many associated issues and to pass the enabling orders. It will not be out of place here to state that the concerned authorities seem to have omitted to bring many other closely related issues to the knowledge of the Court.
As a summary of comments with regard to the protection of the great Indian bustard (GIB) and the lesser florican from the credible threats associated with high voltage power lines for solar power parks, it must be unambiguously stated that these high voltage power lines are not essential to optimally harness the vast potential of solar power in the country; and that an imaginative application of distributed kinds of renewable energy resources, such as roof-top solar power systems, small size wind turbines and community based bio-energy systems, have the potential to satisfactorily meet most of the electricity needs of our people on a sustainable basis at the lowest overall cost to the country, without the need for so many additional power lines, and without harming any elements of our environment.
Here I elaborate briefly on some of the major concerns confronting our society in the fields of environment and ecology.

A. Other negatives associated with high voltage power lines

In addition to the extinction threats to the habitats of endangered species (such as the great Indian bustard and the lesser florican in Rajasthan and Gujarat), the high voltage lines associated with large size solar or wind power parks, such as the ones in Rajasthan and Gujarat (elsewhere too such as in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra etc), are also the cause of many other negatives.
In this larger context of severe ecological concerns and vast level of societal level social and economic costs/ impacts, there is a critical and urgent need for diligently reviewing the real necessity for every additional power line proposal in the overall welfare context of the local communities, and to implement the most suitable option with extreme care towards the environment.

B. Are high voltage power lines essential/ inevitable to optimally harness solar and wind power potential?

The continued preference of our authorities to build such large size renewable energy parks (both solar and wind-powered ones as in Gujarat and Rajasthan) in different parts of the country has rendered the present scenario as one with the perceived need to have such high voltage lines to optimally harness renewable energy sources (REs), as part of India’s international climate change commitments under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement. 
But these authorities are conveniently ignoring the humongous potential of the distributed type of renewable energy sources, such as rooftop solar power systems, small/ medium sized wind turbines, community-based bio-energy units etc., which will not require any such high voltage (HV) power lines, and which are also associated with many societal levels benefits, such as vastly reduced energy losses, better voltage profile across the grid, people’s active participation in the energy sector, much reduced financial burden on the government, huge scope for local employment creation, least impact on the environment etc.
The humongous potential of rooftop solar power systems in India can be exemplified by the recent decision of the Union government to encourage such systems over 1 crore households. Few news links, as below, can highlight the importance of rooftop solar power systems, which may not need any additional HV power lines. 
The residential rooftop solar potential alone, which is estimated as 637 GW, is about twice the total power generating capacity in the country as at present. If the rooftop surface of all other kinds of buildings are also optimally harnessed, the total power generation potential can run to several thousand GWs, and can be equivalent to more than the total electricity needs of the entire country for several more decades.

C. High voltage power lines for other kinds of power sources also have multiple concerns

The conventional electricity sources such as coal based thermal, dam based hydro, and nuclear based power plants, because of their large capacities in a single location, need multiple high voltage power lines to transfer the generated power over long distances, and these power lines come with multiple ecological and societal level costs, which are unacceptably high in most cases. 
 The prime examples of such unacceptably high societal level costs are those lines which pass through the legally protected areas (PAs) such as Wildlife Sanctuaries, Tiger Reserves, and National Parks. It may not be an overstatement to say that it is a mockery of the Acts of our Parliament that thick, natural and very high value forest lands are routinely being diverted for power projects/ power lines even from legally protected areas (PAs), as against the Parliament’s intention to protect these rich forest resources along with endangered wildlife species. 
Thousands of sq km of such critically important forest lands are reported to have been diverted for power projects/ power lines during the last 25-30 years alone, despite the globally accepted importance of protecting them from a climate change perspective.
Adequate investments and honest efforts to focus on the distributed kinds of renewable energy sources such as rooftop solar power systems, small/ medium sized wind turbines, community-based bio-energy units etc., along with the deployment of micro/ mini/ smart grids at our community levels, along with suitably designed battery energy storage systems (BESS), protection and communication systems will be able to address most of the associated concerns our society is facing at present, while satisfactorily meeting most of the electricity needs of our people.

D. Need to consider the other aspects of climate change

Whereas, the focus of the hon’ble court in the present case has been to protect the two endangered species from the credible threats of high voltage power lines in Rajasthan and Gujarat, I may please be permitted to submit that there is a fundamental problem in the repeated statements of the successive governments with regard to meeting the international obligations on Climate Change. 
It is totally erroneous to perceive that the massive additions to solar power capacity alone, at any societal level costs, will satisfactorily address the threats associated by climate change. Even a large number of such initiatives to minimise the GHG emissions from the entire energy sector alone will not be adequate. Many complementary action plans, across various sectors of the entire global economy are urgently needed.
It is true that successive governments have been taking credit for launching many schemes to increase the total capacity of renewable energy sources, especially solar power. But at the same time, there has also been the scenario of irrationally encouraging the addition of massive amounts to the total generation capacity through conventional technology electricity sources such as coal power plants, dam based hydel power plants, and nuclear power plants.
It should be emphasised here that the dam based hydel power plants and nuclear power plants, in addition to coal power plants, also contribute massively to the global warming phenomenon in multiple ways; certainly, to the depletion of forest lands because of the need to have multiple high voltage power lines over long distances.
The consequence is not only that the total GHG emissions in the country is continuously increasing even beyond the conservative targets, but also are leading to the alarming levels of damage to our natural resources, such as destruction of our forest wealth, through establishment of coal mines, large reservoirs, high voltage power lines etc.
The large number of environmental, social and economic concerns to our people, both in the short-term and long-term, because of the conventional technology electricity sources can be appreciated as in a discussion paper attached with the title “An Integrated Power Policy”.
A modest level of understanding of the environment, ecology and the phenomenon of climate change can reveal to any rational thinker that the accelerated depletion of our natural resources (forests, fresh water bodies, fertile soils, mangroves etc.) along with the ever-increasing levels of fossil fuel consumption, is the root cause of the ongoing global climate emergency.
India urgently needs effective SC intervention to put in place national level perspective to address credible threats of climate change
In summary, it can be highlighted that the minimisation of the total demand for various kinds of materials and energy at the national and global level has become critical and urgent in order to minimise the impacts of climate emergency due to global warming on our people.

E. Critical need for the honourable court to effectively intervene in climate change initiatives

Civil society seems to have run out of various options to persuade the successive governments to undertake diligent studies on all the relevant issues, and to implement suitable action programs to mitigate and adapt to climate change. These efforts to appeal to the concerned authorities were in the areas of forest and wildlife conservation, due diligence and accountability in electricity sector planning, measures like efficiency improvement, demand side management and energy conservation, water management etc. 
Specific representations detailing civil society concerns, along with credible recommendations, to the concerned authorities on electric power sector issues such as coal power plants, dam based hydro power plants, nuclear power plants, large size solar power parks, transmission line planning, micro/mini/ smart grids, the application of economic decision-making tools such as costs and benefits analysis, and options analysis etc. have not elicited any response despite multiple efforts. In almost all such cases, even specific representations by civil society one or more projects have not been acknowledged. On the contrary, the BAU scenario of unsustainable exploitation of our natural resources is continuing, thereby leading to enormous concerns for our people.
Such efforts include multiple representations on specific and larger issues to: the Ministry of Power and Non-conventional Energy Sources, NITI Aayog, PMO (power and energy related issues, and suitable alternatives to the high impact conventional technology power sources and High Voltage power lines); Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, PMO and NITI Aayog (forests, rivers, wildlife and climate change); Department of Atomic Energy, Atomic Energy Commission, PMO, NITI Aayog, and Comptroller & Auditor General of India (CAG) (risks, threats, and costs of nuclear power); Ministry of Coal (coal mining risks/ costs), and Ministry of Finance (Ecological costs, and high GDP growth rate consequences).
Since the legislatures and executives in the country are not being seen as showing the required level of due diligence on all the associated legislations/ implementation, the only alternative left for the people of the country to seek effective actions on various concerns at the societal level is the judiciary.
The future for our country can be seen as deeply worrisome from any perspective, if the highest Court of the country also deems it not important enough to deliberate on all such associated concerns of the civil society.
Such societal concerns with regard to the unsustainable and over-exploitation of our natural resources is even acknowledged by the draft National Resource Efficiency Policy (NREP), 2019 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), which has said:
"In the endeavour for economic growth, natural resources have been largely indiscriminately exploited, adversely impacting the environment and biodiversity. Further, cross linkages between resource use, climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss has been scientifically well established. Meeting the demand for products and services of a rising population with increased aspirations has led to mostly indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources and would further lead to increased pressure on resources resulting in environmental degradation, thereby raising sustainability concerns.”
In this larger context of national welfare perspective, I think that our country is in urgent need of an effective intervention by the SC of India so as to put in place a suitable national level developmental perspective to address the credible threats associated with climate change, and also to implement a set of national level policies and practices, which will in the immediate term work towards minimising the total demand for all kinds of materials and various energy sources; and maintain those demands at the lowest possible levels.

F. An appeal to the honourable Court

The honourable court should to consider issuing the necessary directives to the concerned authorities to implement suitable policies/ practices so as to minimise the calamitous impacts on our people from the phenomenon of climate change by providing satisfactory clarifications to civil society on various concerns on all high cost/ impact projects.
---
Power & Climate Policy Analyst, electrical engineer and a power sector professional with over 4 decades of experience in India, New Zealand and Australia, working with many civil society groups. This article is based on the author's representation to the Chief Justice and the Justices of the Supreme Court of India

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