Are Solar Projects Really Environment-friendly?
Published in our Print Version on 23rd February 2022
There has been a visible impact of solar energy in the Indian energy scenario during the last few years. About 5,000 trillion kWh per year energy is incident over India’s land area with most parts receiving 4–7 kWh per sq. m per day. Theoretically, a small fraction of the total incident solar energy, if captured effectively, can meet the entire country’s power requirements. And, the government has been aggressively working towards it.
Erik Solheim, an eminent environmentalist, quoted Bhadla Solar Park in Jodhpur District of Rajasthan in a social media platform. Besides being the President of Green Belt and Road Institute, Erik has many feathers on his cap. In his message, he mentioned Bhadla Solar Park to be spread over 14,000 acres of desert and comprises 10 million solar panels. With a capacity of 2245 Mega Watts and an investment of over $1.3 billion, it is the world’s largest solar park.
This triggered a pertinent question, whether such a huge installation could cause any imbalance in the terrestrial flora, fauna, as it prevents direct falling of sunlight on the ground. This agitated netizens. Someone tried to explain, solar is much better than extraction of equivalent amounts of fossil fuels needed to generate that much power.
Ashish Joshi, who is also into Environment and Media, responded “These are barren lands of Thar desert.”
But the ecosystem, even in deserts, needs sunlight for proper functioning. Richard Knocker responded “No it’s not. Even deserts sustain life and biodiversity. Great project but be aware that everything comes at a cost.”
Distinguished Environmentalist, Manoj Misra commented it to be hugely problematic, as deserts are not wastelands or empty lands.
Sumit Dookia, a Wildlife Biologist, working for conservation of biodiversity deliberated on the biodiversity of Thar Desert that comprises Ungulates, Small Carnivores, Bats, and many rare and endangered species. He also describes Bhadla Solar Park as a Great Indian Bustard (GIB) potential area. Sumit Dookia also underlines the threat of huge downfall in pollinator dependent crop production in the surrounding area, which may not have high significance to the deserts.
In fact, the US based Solar Energy Development Programmatic EIS Information Centre has stated in a document that construction of solar facilities on large areas of land requires clearing and grading, and results in soil compaction, potential alteration of drainage channels, and increased runoff and erosion. Engineering methods can be used to mitigate these impacts. It further states that clearing and use of large areas of land for solar power facilities can adversely affect native vegetation and wildlife in many ways, including loss of habitat; interference with rainfall and drainage; or direct contact causing injury or death. The impacts are exacerbated when the species affected are classified as sensitive, rare, or threatened and endangered.
An article “Solar energy development impacts on land cover change and protected areas”written by Rebecca R. Hernandez, Madison K. Hoffacker, Michelle L. Murphy-Mariscal, Grace C. Wu, and Michael F. Allen opines that a growing body of studies underscores the vast potential of solar energy development in places that minimise adverse environmental impacts and confer environmental co-benefits. The study of California reveals that utility-scale solar energy (USSE) development is a source of land cover change and, based on its proximity to protected areas, may exacerbate habitat fragmentation resulting in direct and indirect ecological consequences. These impacts may include increased isolation and non-native species invasions, and compromised movement potential of species tracking habitat shifts in response to environmental disturbances, such as climate change.
Alona Armstrong’s article “Solar is booming but solar parks could have unintended climate consequences” of 8th July 2014 in The Guardian deliberates that little is known about solar parks’ impact on plants, soil and climate. A better approach to research could identify risks and develop new solar parks that provide environmental benefits. That’s the crux. Every action perceived as environment-friendly must be based on facts and figures.