By Deepanshu Kaul Philip,
Head (Strategy & Operations), SolConnect
Solar energy is touted as one of the solutions to meet humankind’s rising energy demand while keeping global warming led temperature rise at bay. India has spearheaded this cause by giving shape to the International Solar Alliance in 2015. Our commitment can be seen by the rise from 3.6 GW in 2015 to 40GW in 2021. As we now commonly say-“A decade back India spoke in terms of MW today it speaks in terms of GW”.
In order to reach the ambitious target of 175 GW by 2022 contribution of solar power in the energy mix, by both large indigenous players like- ADANI, Vikram, and Waree and small scale solar companies, plays a pivotal role. However, the sector is not free from challenges. At the heart of this is “land”.
A resource that has been the cause of wars since time immemorial acquiring land for solar projects has led to legal challenges to solar companies. This is especially true for states that have high dependance on land for agricultural activities. Be it farming or cattle grazing or collecting non-timber forest products.
The recent cancellation of land allotted to AREPL, an Adani group firm and Essel Surya Urja Company of Rajasthan Ltd (ESUCRL) in Jaisalmer district, for 10000 MW of planned projects by Rajasthan High Court adds to the litany of such cases.
The petitioners are villagers in the area who have contested the classification of land as barren and cited discrepancies in the process. The 2020 draft notification for the amendment of environmental impact assessments (EIA) provides for an exception to large solar power plants. While the tussle between land and solar projects won’t end soon, it would be worth looking at technological solutions and innovative ideas that could provide a solution and keep us on the path to become a global solar energy generator.
- Utilization of built structures: Petrol pump stations, household rooftops, government offices, railway stations, airports etc are good examples of extracting more value from pre-existing resources.
- Wetlands: Rivers, Lakes and Ponds being covered by solar panels would not only generate energy but also reduce evaporation of these water bodies. It would also cool the panels and reduce overheating. However, this should not come at the cost of aquatic biodiversity missing their share of sunlight.
- Hydroponic farming powered by solar energy: This would ensure Climate Smart Agriculture and provide farmers with both electricity and additional source of income. It would also incentivize farmers to go from high production farming to high productivity farming.
- Combining Wind and Solar energy to create hybrid models. The land acquired for wind energy projects can be utilized for laying out solar panels. The potential for this is very high in Rajasthan.
Solar Tree: Instead of expanding horizontally, this Israeli innovation creates trees made of solar panels that provide energy and free-wifi in villages. This could achieve various developmental goals of providing public utilities too. Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute (CMERI), has designed and developed, a solar tree that can produce 3kW of power in four square feet of space. Traditional solar photovoltaic systems do the same in 400 square feet.
Solar bike paths and walkways: An out of the box idea is worth considering if the problems identified from other countries can be ironed out. The idea of a solar road can stir up controversies. For example, China’s solar highway and French project had problems related to high cost and low output. However, it could be a substitute to asphalt in future when the idea becomes more feasible.
Use of trackers in existing plants to gain more from existing plants.
Apart from the above solutions, it is necessary to involve residing communities to be active stakeholders while projects are being planned. This might delay the process in the short term but could bring a sense of ownership among the locals and transform disputes into success stories. The government is hammering out the policy to ensure this but implementation is key in garnering such confidence. Getting over such recurring challenges is necessary to move into an age when we no longer talk in terms of GW but TW.
(Deepanshu Kaul Philip is a certified REC solar professional working as head of Strategy and Operations, SolConnect for past 5 years.)