India needs to judiciously use its land for RE expansion targets


Whether or not India commits to net-zero emission by 2050, its huge renewable energy (RE) capacity expansion over next few decades will require large quantum of land, for which India needs to judiciously plan its solar and wind energy footprints, a report said on Monday.

A maximum of 2.5 per cent of India’s total landmass would be needed for solar, it said.

Only judicious planning of land use for solar and wind generation will help India achieve its renewable energy ambitions, according to a new report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis’ (IEEFA) that has examined how much land could be needed for the country to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Net zero carbon emissions can be achieved either by removal of or as much elimination as possible of emission from a given unit, such as a city or a country. According to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global carbon emissions should decline by about 45 per cent by 2030 to restrict the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (compared to the pre-industrial era temperatures). If the countries indeed cut emission, net zero is likely to be achieved around 2050.

The IEEFA report has calculated that if India were to implement a mid-century net-zero target – the Government of India is not yet ready to commit to a year – solar could occupy in the range of 50,000-75,000 sq kms of land, while wind could use a further 1,500-2,000 sq kms (for the land area directly impacted by turbine pads, sub-stations, roads and buildings) or 15,000-20,000 sq kms (the total project area including space between turbines and other infrastructure). The amount of land that could be needed for solar is equivalent to 1.7-2.5 per cent of India’s total landmass, or 2.2-3.3 per cent of non-forested land, a release said.

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

Comparing the effects of large-scale renewable expansion to those of meeting electricity requirements from additional coal-fired power, Worringham noted that the locations for renewable energy generation 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 and where displacement of tribal communities is an issue. Compared to that, renewable energy does not permanently alter land and natural resources in the same way as coal.”

However, the report also notes the potential for land-use conflict to arise over renewable energy installations, even in sparsely populated areas, slowing the rollout of infrastructure.

The report made recommendation to minimise the total land-use requirements through offshore wind, distributed rooftop solar, and solar on artificial water bodies and optimizing the identification and assessment of land.

It also said increasing the stock of potentially suitable geographically diverse lands by boosting the uptake of agri-voltaics where crops, soils and conditions are suitable and yields can be maintained or improved, for instance, where solar photovoltaic panels are installed in fertile land side by side the crop.

“The energy transition will also require important choices about where this infrastructure should be located. But careful planning and solutions like agri-voltaics, 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 power generation closer to both urban and rural loads, transmission costs could also be kept in check,” Worringham said.