Expansion of renewable projects threatening India’s food security?

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

Over 74 per cent of solar development in India was built on landcover types that have natural ecosystem preservation, or agricultural value, found a study from last year mapping solar locations. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

As per data provided in the Lok Sabha last month, the Indian government has sanctioned 50 solar parks, with a total capacity of 37,990 MW across 12 states in India. Of these, 11 solar parks are complete and seven are partially finished.

As India powers ahead with expanding its renewable energy capacity, there is a concern over how it 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.

In India, over 74 per cent of solar development is built on landcover types that have natural ecosystem preservation, or agricultural value, according to a study published in the Nature journal in 2022, conducted by The Nature Conservancy (TNC-India) and Microsoft.

“We had reached out to multiple organisations and governments to provide us data on where all these solar and wind farms are going, but we always had difficulty getting the data. That’s when we thought of making use of this technology for our study,” said Shivaprakash Nagaraju, Senior Applied Scientist and one of the authors of the study.

Deploying a mix of remote sensing satellite data and machine learning, the researchers began by compiling point labels of known solar farms and creating weak segmentation labels through human-machine interaction. This pixel-based data was then paired with the geo-referenced Sentinel-2 satellite imagery to train a supervised segmentation neural network and was further refined through Hard Negative Mining. Through this, they further estimated the timelines when these solar panels were installed and assessed the land use pattern prior to their installation.

According to the study, more than 74 per cent of solar projects were on land with ecological preservation or agricultural value – 67.6 per cent of agricultural land and 18.7 per cent of natural habitat – with 38.6 per cent of agricultural land having the potential to cultivate seasonal crops such as kharif, rabi, and zaid along with 28.95 per cent of the land having plantation crop/orchards.

When it is required for India to prepare well in advance for the upcoming food crisis, allocating large chunks of lands of ecological and agricultural importance for solar farms doesn’t make for a well-thought-out approach.

Bhargavi S Rao, trustee, Environment Support Group

Analysing the results of the study, Binit Das, Programme Manager, Renewable Energy, Centre for Science and Environment and not associated with the study, told Mongabay India, “Given the substantial land requirements necessary for achieving India’s ambitious RE goals to generate 420 GW of power from solar and wind projects, the study suggests potential environmental and socio-ecological risks. As a result, this effort might contribute to food insecurity in the years ahead, since the country will need approximately 400,000 hectares of land by 2030 to meet its renewable energy targets.”

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.

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.

Bhargavi S. Rao, Senior Fellow and trustee at the Environment Support Group (ESG), points out that India requires about 225-230 million tonnes of foodgrains to feed its population in a year. But, due to incompetent policies and food wastage, India is unable to feed its population despite an increase in production which is testified by India’s 107th rank out of the 121 countries in the 2022 Global Hunger Index. Adding to the woes, a 2030 projection by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) states that climate change could cause a decline of 16 per cent in India’s food production, increasing the number of people vulnerable to hunger by 23 per cent.

“When it is required for India to prepare well in advance for the upcoming food crisis, allocating large chunks of lands of ecological and agricultural importance for solar farms doesn’t make for a well-thought-out approach,” Rao emphasised.

Rao explains, “Agriculture is an activity that is interwoven with a variety of other agro-pastoral livelihoods such as animal rearing, weaving, fishing, etc. that supplement the rural household economy and thereby guaranteeing nutritional security at the household level. Once land is diverted all other livelihood activities cease to exist and nutritional security at the household level will be depleted.”

According to the Nature study, there have been at least 15 reported instances of conflicts associated with solar and wind energy projects in India since 2017. These conflicts have been on the rise, impacting the livelihoods of many individuals and the substantial investments made by renewable energy (RE) developers.

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.

A 2021 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis notes that protection of farmland is essential, but nurturing an Indian agrivoltaics sector could secure benefits to farmers and reduce pressure on other types of land. “Measures include supporting a major expansion of agrivoltaics research and incentivising agrivoltaics uptake where crops, soils and conditions are suitable and yields can be maintained or improved,” it recommends.

Leveraging these resources could significantly reduce the land required for RE expansion and could result in fewer social, ecological, and environmental impacts compared to land with high ecological, agricultural, livelihood and biodiversity value.

However, the study emphasises that harnessing renewable energy on these less conflict-prone lands won’t happen by chance; it requires intentional effort. Policymakers and decision-makers hold the responsibility of ensuring that chosen project sites do not compromise communities’ livelihoods, land rights, biodiversity, and natural ecosystems.

“Understanding the factors associated with renewable energy development and predicting future expansion patterns will allow for the proactive identification of potential conflicts between renewable energy and other important land uses. This information can be used to guide renewable energy development toward areas with lower conflict, which will be important to avoid conversion to productive agricultural land and minimise the food-versus-energy controversy,” Das said.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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