Responsible land use for PV, wind could smooth Indian energy transition


From pv magazine India

India needs to judiciously plan land use for solar and wind generation to achieve its renewable energy ambitions, according to a new report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).  

The report shows that if India were to achieve a net-zero target by 2050, solar could occupy 50,000 to 75,000 square kilometers (km2) of land. Wind could use another 1,500 to 2,000 km2 for turbines, substations, roads, and buildings, or 15,000 to 20,000 km2 if the total project sites are included, including space between turbines and other infrastructure. The amount of land that could be needed for solar is equivalent to 1.7% to 2.5% of India’s total landmass, or 2.2% to 3.3% of non-forested land. 

The report’s author, Dr. Charles Worringham, said that the higher end of the land-use range is deliberately generous, in order to allow plenty of leeway for planning. “This is a precautionary approach for the purposes of planning and putting in place smart land-use policies today for future renewable infrastructure,” he said.

Worringham said that the locations for renewable energy can be chosen using India’s preferred social and environmental criteria and can be widely distributed across the country. “Additional coal can only come from already heavily mined districts or from new coal blocks, which are often in significant forest areas,” he said. “Nor does renewable energy permanently alter land and natural resources in the same way as coal.”

The report notes the potential for land-use conflicts over renewable energy installations, even in sparsely populated areas, to slow down the rollout of infrastructure.

“Whether or not India commits to a mid-century net-zero emissions target, its huge expansion of renewable energy capacity over the coming decades will enhance energy security enormously, but this requires a large amount of land for infrastructure,” said Worringham. “The energy transition will also require important choices about where this infrastructure should be located. But careful planning and solutions like agrivoltaics, distributed energy systems, and offshore wind can also greatly reduce the potential for renewable generation to conflict with social and environmental values whilst diversifying and strengthening India’s national grid. By bringing more generation closer to both urban and rural loads, transmission costs could also be kept in check.”

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Key recommendations

The report looks at how to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs of land use for the energy transition. The recommendations for policymakers fall into three categories:

1. Minimizing total land-use requirements through offshore wind, distributed rooftop solar, and solar on artificial bodies of water.

2. Optimizing the identification and assessment of land. Measures include developing clear environmental and social criteria for rating potential sites and undertaking comprehensive independent assessments of potential sites. Tenders must be designed to incentivize the use of the highest-ranked locations, or those of least environmental and social concern. In addition, there needs to be support for widely distributed renewable generation at different scales.

3. Increasing the stock of potentially suitable geographically diverse land by boosting the uptake of agrivoltaics where crops, soil, and conditions are suitable and yields can be maintained or improved. 

Agricultural land has the potential to host a much larger proportion of renewable generation. It could provide a boost to rural economies and reduce pressure on other land, according to the report. An Indian agrivoltaics sector could also provide benefits to farmers, including second income streams, said Worringham.

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