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How much land would be needed to power a net-zero India? New study shows

Renewable energy sources like solar or wind power don’t permanently alter land and natural resources like coal mining does, writes Charles Worringham in a new study in IEEFA.

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A recurrent issue raised in discussions of renewable energy is land use – the amount of land occupied by solar and wind generation facilities, where these are located, and the extent to which using such land for power generation conflicts with alternatives such as human habitation, farming, or the conservation of natural resources.

The question of renewable energy’s land use is far from new. As early as 1979 it was explicitly outlined as a potential problem in a report for the U.S. Department of Energy, and it has subsequently emerged as an issue in several countries, leading, for example, to the Netherlands introducing restrictions on large-scale solar parks in 2019 because of concerns over competition with agriculture. In the Asian region, it has been debated in Indonesia, and in Japan several aspects of land use for power emerged as concerns in a recent survey of local governments.

It is the broad public debate over net-zero emissions targets for mid-century, however, that has reignited land use as a significant question. With net-zero targets pledged by many countries and under consideration by others, it is forcing an evaluation of the energy landscape, literally as well as figuratively, 30 years hence.

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Land-use implications for India

Whether or not India commits to a formal mid-century net-zero emissions goal this year, it will continue adding very substantial solar and wind generation capacity over the next three decades. Part of this capacity will replace thermal generation, but some will be required to meet population and economic growth.

This report considers the land-use implications of India’s unfolding energy transition and the important choices about where these resources should be located. It reviews current land-use studies and then outlines likely future requirements based on the mid-century scenarios presented in recent reports, including those published by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water(CEEW), The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and Shell, and the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Analysis of these reports shows that some have exaggerated land-use requirements while other projections under-estimate them. Uncertainties in future electricity demand account for most of the variation in estimated land use.

A precautionary, high-side land use estimate for net-zero in 2050 is between 50,000 and 75,000 km2 for solar, and for wind 15,000-20,000 km2 (total project area) or 1,500-2,000 km2 (direct impact).

The quantity of land required for different types of power generation is arguably of much less importance than what impacts they have. The widespread solar resource in particular gives India the opportunity to locate solar generation in a widely distributed pattern, and base decisions about location on multiple economic, social and environmental criteria. By contrast, coal can only be mined where it exists, and any new coal would be heavily concentrated in some of India’s most important forests such as the Hasdeo Arand.

Properly managed renewable generation can co-exist with other land uses, and, unlike coal-based power, it does not fundamentally change land during use or following its ultimate de-commissioning.

While a net-zero India in 2050 is likely to require less land for renewable generation than some estimates have suggested, the total land area is nevertheless still large and such a major transition should not proceed without policies to optimise land use.

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India’s energy-related land use outlook has unique features

India has unique characteristics that call for a better understanding of land-use requirements. Some areas of very high population density, as yet incomplete electrification, low levels of electricity consumption and climatic differences are some of those features.

For the purposes of any mid-century estimates, increased demand from economic and population growth are stand-out features that distinguish the Indian land use outlook from those for Europe and North America. This was highlighted in a media release from the CEEW suggesting that renewable energy for net zero by 2050 would require a 55-fold increase in India’s renewable electricity generation, 13 implying a substantial increase in land requirements.

How much land will renewable energy occupy by 2050?

Direct Land-Use Studies

Estimating how much land will be needed for renewable energy generation three decades from now necessitates combining information from the small number of specific land-use studies with various outlooks for the country’s future generation requirements.

Although there are many reports of India’s renewable resource potential (e.g.23), only a few have included specific estimates of land-use requirements. These are summarised in Table 1.

There are several important caveats to these widely varying estimates that prevent them being taken at face value.

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This analysis shows that even with a mid-century net-zero target, India has sufficient land available for all of its renewable energy generation requirements.

Nevertheless, the amount of land needed is still substantial, ranging from 1.7% to 2.5% of the country’s surface area for solar if the 50,000-75,000 km2 suggested for the purposes of planning is used, and a much smaller direct impact from wind.

To safeguard India’s ecologically important regions, prevent or minimise conflict over social impacts, and maintain agricultural productivity, it is imperative that Union and State governments develop a policy and planning framework that optimises decisions about land use for renewable energy in coming decades, rather than by proceeding with such decisions on an ad-hoc basis.

Recommendations to assist the development of such an approach fall into three categories.

1) Minimise total land use requirements for renewable energy by:

— Supporting the development of offshore wind, as envisaged, for example, in the identification of 71GW offshore wind capacity in eight zones off Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.

— Maximising the uptake of rooftop solar, especially commercial and industrial premises. The current 7GW of rooftop capacity falls well short of even the current 40GW goal. Enhancing this uptake will require resolving issues such as the appropriateness of net-metering costs, and mechanisms to ensure that benefits to residential consumers do not accrue unfairly across different social sectors.

— Making use of appropriate water bodies for solar. India has already experimented with panels above irrigation canals, but identifying water bodies where the appropriate coverage with floating solar produces net benefits (e.g. reducing evaporation, preventing algal blooms) outweigh any potential harms (e.g. reduced oxygenation, lower photosynthesis, leaching). Artificial water bodies where water quality is often sub- optimal should be the focus.

2) Optimise the identification of land for renewable generation by:

—Developing clear environmental and social criteria for rating the suitability of potential renewable generation locations.

— Undertaking comprehensive, independent assessments of all potential locations against these criteria before any specific projects or tenders are considered. Ideally, states would develop publicly available land inventories listing the renewable resource potential as well as these assessment scores.

— Incentivising the use of the highest ranked locations (those of least environmental and social concern) in the development of tenders, through the adoption of appropriate bidding rules and procedures. For example, eligibility to bid could include a bidder’s meeting minimum “fleet-wide” land-use scores.

— Limiting undue concentration of generation in single regions and incentivising widely distributed generation at different scales.

3) Increase the stock of potentially suitable land for renewable generation by:

Nurturing an Indian agrivoltaics sector. Farmland makes up 60.4% of India’s total surface area (2018 data), a far higher proportion than most countries. Various configurations of solar panels above crops can, in the right conditions, see maintained or increased yields, and reduce soil moisture loss, but India has only about 20 small-scale projects in progress.

A major research effort to establish optimal conditions and lay-outs for India’s various regions, climates and crops, and the right incentives, could see agriculture host a much larger proportion of renewable generation and add income streams in the rural economy, while alleviating pressure on other land.

This is an edited excerpt from ‘Renewable Energy and Land Use in India by Mid-Century’. Read the full paper here.

Dr Charles Worringham is an Australia-based independent researcher and guest contributor to IEEFA. Views are personal.

The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) examines issues related to energy markets, trends and policies.

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