The Social and Environmental costs of Renewable energy projects

by Shikha Lakhanpal

Global concerns about mitigating climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions have led to innovations in the energy sector. Across the world, 192 countries have announced policies to promote renewable energy and are looking to expand the installation of renewable energy. Renewable energy is considered as a win-win solution because it allows us to mitigate climate change without sacrificing economic development. Indeed, renewables are poised as the energy choice of the future.

Even as renewable energy ostensibly provides the solution to our growing need for energy and the pressing need for mitigating climate change, the picture is far from simple. For instance, the local Inuit population in conjunction with environmental groups is opposing a renewable hydroelectric project in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. The hydroelectric dam replaces 13 coal-fired plants and has come under fire for being disruptive to the ecology of the landscape. In Oaxaca, Mexico, local communities are resisting wind power projects because they encroach upon customary uses of land and threaten traditional and local land based livelihoods. These tensions highlight the complexity and the challenges associated with the renewable energy sector and the social and environmental impacts of renewable energy..

While it is imperative that policy makers consider the social and environmental impacts of renewable energy projects, one must take a step back and scrutinize the social and environmental costs associated with the sector itself.

How Sustainable is Renewable energy?

Large scale solar or wind energy farms require areas of contiguous land. The availability of land is contentious, especially in developing countries. Renewable energy projects, particularly wind and hydro, compete with local livelihoods, conservation interests and other development activities. Additionally these projects often entail a process where development is usually prioritized over conservation, and livelihood activities.

A wind or solar power project has a PLF (plant load factor- a measure of efficiency of the plant) of 18-20%. A thermal power plant has a PLF of 65-70%.
To generate the same quantity of electricity as a thermal power plant, a solar or wind powered plant would need to operate at three times the capacity. As a result, renewable power projects require more land per MW than other conventional sources of electricity. For example, a typical wind power project requires land to the order of 15-20 acres per MW. This combined with the fact that most sites of high natural resource potential for wind and hydel projects are located in areas of high rainfall and rich biodiversity, complicates the picture.

Additionally in India, forest lands are the default choice of location for wind and hydel power project developers. It is cumbersome to negotiate private land deals and agricultural land needs to be converted to commercial land, in order to be procured for renewable energy development. In comparison, it is relatively easier for renewable energy projects to get approval from the federal and regional forest departments, because they are considered ‘sustainable’.

Setting up of a renewable energy project requires felling of trees, laying transmission lines and constructing a sub-station for relaying the electricity to the grid. The wind turbines are massive structures that need to be hauled to higher altitudes thereby significantly affecting the ecology of the landscape. In high rainfall areas, these changes could lead to landslides, conflicts with local livelihoods, and massive soil erosion. In addition to the socio-environmental debates surrounding solar and wind power, run of the river small hydropower dams are often portrayed as benign, low-impact and environment-friendly alternatives to large dams. This is because unlike conventional dams, run-of-the river dams don’t involve storage of water and instead they rely on diverting the river flow. Diversion of large quantities of river water can affect the water velocity and depth, reduce river flows, and severely minimize the habitat quality for fish and aquatic organisms. This posturing of run-of-the-river small hydropower as environmentally benign obscures the threat they pose to aquatic life, agriculture, irrigation, land, and traditional livelihoods.

Further obscuring the environmental and social costs of renewable energy projects, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in India has exempt wind power projects from the mandatory requirement of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) . EIA is a crucial indicator of the destruction of ecology and wildlife in the area, which is a key concern for conservationists. Small hydropower projects that utilize less than 5 hectares of land are also exempt from the EIA that is otherwise mandatory for all development projects in and around conservation areas. This poses a grave threat to the ecology of the area where the renewable projects are located.

Do ends justify the means?

A mix of pro-renewable policy initiatives, attractive subsidies, an assured buy-back rate and tax holidays make the renewable energy sector a highly lucrative investment option. It is interesting to note that as the total share of installed capacity of renewable power has steadily increased over time, the actual generation of renewable electricity has not. Studies have shown how countless renewable energy plants are benefitting from subsidies and tax breaks without actually generating electricity.

In India all development projects, including renewable energy, are required to gain consent from village level panchayats. In most cases, the certificate of consent from village level panchayats provides mere lip service. The project developers often use empty claims of providing electricity and economic benefits to impoverished, local communities in order to jumpstart the projects. There is no mechanism to monitor how much electricity will be provided and to how many households at the local level. A case in point is the 113 MW, Andhra lake Wind power project, promoted by the multi-national Enercon, on the outskirts of Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra. The villagers who live next to the project site don’t have access to electricity, even though the project threatens their livelihoods and the rich biodiversity of the region.

Conclusion: The way forward

Even as renewable power projects pose equal if not greater threat to ecological biodiversity and cause a wide-scale dispossession of lands and livelihoods, they are rarely critiqued. The state should take into account the precarity of local populations that depend upon natural resources for their livelihoods while encouraging renewable energy projects. Some probable solutions include giving greater powers to the village level panchayats, making EIA mandatory for all renewable energy projects and ensuring economic as well as electricity access for people who live in close proximity to renewable energy projects. As increasing number of practitioners, policy makers across countries are focused on fostering renewable energy; it is even more crucial to examine the complex and layered ways in which such projects are operationalized.