Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on May 03, 2022
Growth and development in renewable energy power generation call for acquiring more suitable land to install RE generating equipment/machinery, and this has raised concerns amongst different stakeholders.
Solar Energy in India: Contestation of Land Rights  This article is part of the series Comprehensive Energy Monitor: India and the World
The Government of India’s budget for 2015-16 revised the target for Renewable Energy (RE) power generation capacity to 175 GWp (gigawatt peak) by 2022, which included 100 GWp of solar power, 40 GWp roof top, 60 GWp of wind, 10 GWp of biomass, and 5 GWp of small hydropower. At COP26 (26th conference of parties) in Glasgow in 2021, the target for RE-based power generation capacity in India was increased to 500 GWp by 2030. The expansion of RE power generation capacity targets is causing concern over the availability of land and related issues for developing RE projects. For project developers, the key concerns are the availability of suitable land and acquisition of vast tracts of land from a number of poor rural title holders, and for the policymakers the challenge is to find the right balance between meeting targets for decarbonisation, ensuring food security, and finding viable alternatives for those displaced from the land for RE development. For poor landowners, problems include obtaining fair compensation for land appropriated for RE projects and relocating to areas where they can find alternative livelihoods.

Land use patterns

The largest land use category in India is agriculture with net sown area (cropped area minus area sown more than once) accounting for over 45 percent (139.42 million hectare ) of land covered by data (93 percent of geographic area) in 2015-16. Forests accounted for over 23 percent (72.02 m ha) and non-agricultural uses 9 percent (27.84 m ha).  Fallow land accounts for over 8 percent (26.36 m ha) and barren land is over 5 percent (16.99 m ha). Land used for pasture and grazing, and waste land account for over 3 percent each (22.58 m ha in total). The remaining 1 percent is covered by tree crops (3.12 m ha).

The expansion of RE power generation capacity targets is causing concern over the availability of land and related issues for developing RE projects.

Empirical studies suggest that most of the areas favourable to solar radiation throughout the year coincide with wasteland in India. However, most projections locate only 11-12 percent of solar projects in deserts and dry scrublands in India in most scenarios. Wasteland is also not favoured by project developers. Developing projects in wastelands increase costs partly because of the inhospitable terrain and partly because of the lack of supporting infrastructure. Transmission infrastructure required to move power generated to consuming centres also increase cost. However, the socio-economic costs imposed on small land holders as well as the ecological costs involved in diverting agricultural land for RE projects are lower. In 2015-16 over 68 percent of land holdings were with marginal farmers who owned less than 1 ha land. Acquiring land from a number of small owners involves high transaction costs (temporal and financial), but both the law governing land acquisition and the discourse of development and decarbonisation favour the investor.  Millions of poor landowners and their rights are treated as collateral damage in a mission for a cleaner and better world. A widely quoted figure for land required for India to meet the goal of 175 GW of RE is 55,000 square kilometres (km2) to 125,000 km2 based on power density of 2 MWp/km2 for wind projects and 26 MWp/km2 for solar photovoltaic projects. The projected area is not large as it accounts for only 1-3 percent of the total surface area of the country, but it is almost 50 to 100 percent of waste land.  Another study concludes that if 78 percent of electricity generation in India is accounted for by solar PV, and about 3 percent is derived from roof top solar PV in 2050, the land area required would be more than 137-182 percent of urban land area in 2010 and a maximum of 2 percent of crop area in 2050. The study finds that for every 100 ha of solar PV panels, 31 to 43 ha of unmanaged forest may be cleared throughout all the world. The same amount of land for solar projects in India would clear 27 to 30 ha of unmanaged forest. Due to the higher irradiance and lower latitude of India, absolute land use per unit of solar output is almost half as in Japan and South Korea, and a third of that in Europe. In addition, as current and projected crop productivities in India are below the global average, the impact of solar expansion on the competition for land is less significant. However, solar expansion scenarios until 2050 will lead to net land-use change (LUC) carbon emissions, although there can be net carbon sequestration in India if land used in solar parks is managed as pastures. If all previous vegetation is permanently cleared, the total LUC emissions related to solar expansion in India are expected to be higher.  Even in the absence of land management practices specifically aiming at carbon sequestration, LUC carbon emission in India is estimated to be below 12 gCO2/kWh (grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour) compared to 13 to 53 gCO2/kWh in Europe.

Contestation of Land Rights

The contestation of land rights is not new in India. The opening line of the chapter on land (chapter 6) of India’s 12th five year plan observes that ‘India has a long history of social discrimination closely linked with denial of access to land’. Land acquisition from the rural poor for large industrial and mining projects are in general skewed in favour of industrial developers. Official estimates suggest that over 60 million people were displaced by development projects and less than a third were resettled. Land for industrial projects is acquired on the principle of eminent domain where the State is entitled to forcibly acquire land for public purposes, often below market prices. A new bill on land acquisition passed in 2013 defined eight categories of public purposes, that included land for power generation projects and private projects for the production of public goods.  RE projects qualify both as power generation projects as well as projects that produce public goods. Amendments to the new land acquisition bill have diluted provisions that protected landowners and made it more capital friendly. This partly explains why reporting on the widespread discontent over the acquisition of large areas of land for solar parks has increased in the last few years.

Solar expansion scenarios until 2050 will lead to net land-use change (LUC) carbon emissions, although there can be net carbon sequestration in India if land used in solar parks is managed as pastures.

Notable among these is conflict over land acquisition for the Pavagada photovoltaic park in Karnataka that leased over 5260 hectares (ha) of land from about 1,800 farmers from 5 villages for 11 corporations to collectively develop 2,050 MWp (megawatt peak) of solar power generation capacity since 2017. The dispute over land acquisition for the Bhadla Solar Park described as the world’s largest ning over 5665 hectares (ha) to host a solar power generation capacity of 2245MWp (megawatt peak) has also been reported by the wider media since 2018. Similar stories may emerge from other large solar parks planned in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and other states in India. According to the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy (MNRE), the government aims to develop 40,000 MWp of solar power generation capacity under a funding scheme for solar parks and ultra-mega solar power projects.

Mediating Conflicts

The trade-off in outcomes (social, economic, and ecological) between using waste land and agricultural land must be mediated by setting policy priorities.  One suggestion is to locate solar PV (photovoltaic) projects on abandoned thermal power plant sites.  A crude estimate suggests that this will not cover land required for RE: A 10 GW coal plant will generate 60 billion kWh of electricity a year at 70 percent load factor.  In a subcritical plant 0.63Kg of coal (4000Kcal/kg ) will be needed for generating 1 kWh (heat rate 2530 Kcal/kWh).  A switch to USC (ultra-supercritical) plant (heat rate 1870kcal/kWh) will save 0.165Kg of coal for every unit of electricity.  60 billion kWh will save 9.9 million tonnes of coal. The plant will take up roughly 57 km2 of land.  Each unit of electricity generated with solar will displace 0.63Kg of coal.  To save 9.9 billion tonnes of coal, 15.6 billion kWh of solar electricity will have to be generated.  This will require 100 GW installed capacity (assuming each kW installed capacity generates 1500 kWh).  If this electricity is generated using solar thermal plants land required will be about five times that of the coal plant and if it is PV based land required will be nine times.

APV could potentially increase land efficiency and enable expansion of PV power, while preserving fertile soils for agriculture or in combination with the creation of species-rich ecosystems. 

Agri-Photovoltaics (APV) is amongst the many recommended co-benefit policies for mediating the conflict in land use.  It proposes the use of land simultaneously for agricultural crop production (photosynthesis) and PV electricity production (photovoltaics). It ranges from intensive crops with dedicated PV mounting systems to extensive grassland with marginal adaptations on the PV side and high potential for ecosystem services. APV could potentially increase land efficiency and enable expansion of PV power, while preserving fertile soils for agriculture or in combination with the creation of species-rich ecosystems.  The challenge here is that the offer of lucrative feed in tariff and land leasing rates to landowners could reduce or even eliminate incentives for food production.  This dynamic may aggravate the conflict between land for fuel and land for food.  Another technological solution is integration of PV panels on road infrastructure, building walls and in electric vehicles but this is not likely to be sufficient to meet industrial scale demand for electricity. A paper on land grabbing by private investors following the hyped discourse on the Jatropha plantation in India for biodiesel production is informative in mediating the land rights conflict. The national mission on biodiesel in 2003 and the biofuel policy in 2009 were essentially bets on the positive narrative around Jatropha cultivation.  This led to a race to acquire vast tracts of mostly unirrigated and waste land by eager private investors. The yield of Jatropha seeds was far below expectations that made biodiesel production unviable without inputs of fertilizer and water. The fall in oil prices further reduced the incentive for biodiesel production from Jatropha.  Today, India’s Jatropha saga is merely a case study on policy formulation that depends on hype. As in the case of Jatropha, the government approach to land acquisition in the 1990s for hydropower and thermal power generation project development excluded all discourses on land use that did not favour government policy.  Land acquisition for industrial projects (RE and other projects) continues to be read as development and any questions on land acquisition and use are treated as anti-development. Devolved federalism in the land use context where land policy comes under state governments contributes to the disconnection between land use and energy policy set at the federal level. Land use is treated as a separate and secondary issue in energy policy and land access becomes a matter of local accommodation rather than federal policy.  Policy options to address these issues include identifying least harm RE zones, maximising on-site and small-scale potential, and coordination of investment in transmission infrastructure in RE project siting. Source:
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