In India, Desolate Solar Parks Reveal the Dark Side of Renewable Energy

India's largest solar park at Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, employs less than 500 people. | Karishma Mehrotra
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Jharkhand, India

In India, Desolate Solar Parks Reveal the Dark Side of Renewable Energy

While the sun shines, over half of Delhi’s metro trains run on power generated 800 km away in a solar park in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh.

At the solar park, spread over 4,000-acre, roughly the size of 3,000 football fields, a sea of panels touched the horizon in every direction in December. In the quiet breeze, I found it nearly impossible to spot a single soul against the mirage effect. Cows, foxes, and snakes seemed to outnumber the humans.

Only when the sun set and the power generation dimmed, a few scattered construction helmets poked out from the sea, hovering alongside a gush of water meant to remove the dust on the panels to increase their power efficiency.

One of the workers, Durvesh Kumar Sharma, said he was paid Rs 30 to hose down one panel. For the roughly 20 panels that he washed every day, he earned about Rs 6,000 to Rs 9,000 per month.

“It’s going well here,” he said. “We can feed our stomachs and the work is good.”

Sharma used to work at a Bangalore cloth factory before moving back to his home village four years ago to help construct the plant. “At least our work is now near our home and we can live with our family,” he said.

But not many share the good fortune.

The sprawling unit, one of the three in the park, employs just 60 workers, including Sharma, to hose down the modules every day. The other two units employ even fewer cleaners at 40 each.

During the monsoon, even these labourers’ contracts are not renewed. “In the rains, my labour count goes to zero,” said Sachin Gupta, a cluster manager with Mahindra Teqo, the company that manages operations in all three units which are owned by different companies.

The park was set up by Rewa Ultra Mega Solar Limited, a joint venture between Madhya Pradesh Urja Vikas Nigam Limited and the Central government’s Solar Energy Corporation of India.

A Madhya Pradesh Renewable Energy Department presentation made in 2019 states that the Rewa project was expected to create 2,250 skilled and 7,500 unskilled “man-days” during construction and 522 skilled “man-days” during operations every year for the next 25 years. Man-days refers to the number of days worked.

A presentation prepared by the Urja Vikas Nigam Limited states that the project provides employment to roughly 3,000 direct workers and 2,000 indirect ones every day.

But a visit to the solar park in December and interviews with all three units’ officials revealed that only about 430 people were working at the park, including unskilled module cleaners and vegetation cutters as well as skilled technicians and managers. The vast majority of unskilled labourers were local, but over half of the 49 skilled technicians were not. Only one site manager, out of all seven, was from Rewa.

Rewa’s solar park was built at a cost of Rs 4,500 crore. At its bidding, in 2017, it was India’s cheapest energy provider, with a tariff of less than Rs 3 per unit – lower than the prevailing tariffs of Rs 4.5 from coal-fired thermal plants. Former chairperson of the Rewa Ultra Mega Solar Limited, Manu Srivastava, now Principal Secretary in the Madhya Pradesh government, attributed this mostly to a unique payment security mechanism, which decreased the developers’ risk.

While many solar park projects in the country have run into land acquisition challenges, the Rewa project was lucky in that 80% of the area earmarked for it was government land – an army firing range. The area surrounding the three main villages at the park was mostly rocky terrain used by pastoralists.

Billed as Asia’s largest single-site solar park and inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2020, the greenfield park showcased the new economic viability of green power – it reportedly reduces India’s carbon emissions by 1.5 million tonnes annually. The project won a prestigious World Bank award in 2017 and is being studied at the Harvard Business school.

India’s renewable energy ministry and the World Bank have often argued that it should be taken as a blueprint for the country and the world.

District authorities take pride in the fact that Rewa’s name has become almost synonymous with the project. “My friends from outside hear Rewa and now think of only the plant,” said district collector Ilayaraja T. “It’s obviously become an identity for the district. Politicians proudly mention that Rewa gives electricity to Delhi Metro.”

But the collector is aware that the enthusiasm for the project among local residents has gradually dimmed. Initially, young people and farmers were excited to see that at least 1,500 people were employed during the construction phase. Once it was clear that those weren’t permanent features, the complaints slowly brewed. “Obviously people would’ve expected more jobs,” Ilayaraja said.

For many local residents, the point of comparison are the cement plants in the district, run by Jaypee and Ultratech. Each of the plants employ about 1,000 workers, said Ilayaraja. The other source of employment is the coal and thermal energy industry in Singrauli, one of India’s densest power generation clusters, about 150 km from Rewa.

“The mines there give a lot of employment. I’ve seen it,” said Shivraj Patel, who drives the 30 km back and forth between Rewa city and his village Badwar several times a week, shuffling Mahindra employees to the solar park that now sits on his village’s land. Patel’s family gave seven hectares of their land at Rs 12 lakh per hectare to the solar park. Many from his village, predominantly home to Adivasis and Other Backward Caste communities, are working in the plant, he said, but it is no match for Singrauli’s coal employment.

The numbers game

Last year, India’s capacity to generate electricity from solar energy grew at the fastest rate in the world, doubling its new installations as compared to the previous years. According to government numbers, solar power capacity has increased by more than 11 times in the last five years.

Despite the accelerated growth in renewables, coal remains the country’s main energy source. The environment minister has made clear that renewables would make for an additional input rather than a replacement.

Nonetheless, many researchers have been ringing alarm bells, calling for more attention to how energy changes could affect employment in the future. Watching the political effects of energy transitions in other countries, these researchers say understanding green jobs and their nature should remain central to the conversation.

The numbers on renewable jobs in India, however, are inconsistent.

The Skills Council of Green Jobs, set up by the Skills Ministry, estimates a total of 400,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector currently, with a projection of 18 lakh by 2030 if India achieves its 500 GW renewable energy target.

The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that solar energy projects employed almost 164,000 people in India in 2020, with hydropower accounting for an even higher number – 320,000.

The Council on Energy, Environment and Water, which partnered with the Skills Council for its research, found a little over 76,500 solar jobs cumulatively until the 2019 financial year.

“These ground-mounted projects, yes, are employing fewer people,” the Skill Council’s CEO Praveen Saxena said. “But you require a lot more when you are constructing [them], and for rooftop solar, you need even more – 20 to 25 people per megawatt.”

He added, “One of the biggest advantages of solar (for developers) is you have a ready-made plant coming quickly, getting installed, and then you don’t need (workers). That is the current situation and that’s how things are being done.”

For a growing group of energy researchers, the numbers don’t hold weight.

“Grid-connected renewable energy has not created many permanent jobs so far because India doesn’t manufacture much in the sector,” said Rohit Chandra, assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, who studies India’s energy policies. “So far most of the jobs are temporary, which disappear at the end of asset construction.”

“The long-term employment multipliers around these massive solar parks in places like Bhadla and Rewa are quite low. They are ghost towns,” he added.

Wind power sites are even more deserted, said Iftekhar Ansari, who has had almost two decades of experience in both wind and solar energy and is currently the general manager at Renew Power, one of the largest renewable energy companies in India. For a mid-sized wind farm, with roughly 25 turbines or 50-megawatt capacity, only 10 skilled and 10 unskilled people would be needed for maintenance, cleaning, oil replacement, tree cutting, and general support, he said. “You will usually have difficulty locating anyone on a wind site during the day. Maybe you will find someone in the evening.”

Still, he argues that the solar parks built by his company have led to significant upliftment in the country’s remotest areas, if not in direct employment, then by the construction of new roads. He estimates that for every 20 MW plant, five skilled and 10 unskilled labourers are required. If the plant size goes to 100 MW, then 15 skilled and 35 to 40 unskilled workers are required. “There was nothing before in these areas. Jobs, roads – solar parks do bring in a lot of development.”

Others disagree. “The local economy around Rewa is completely dead irrespective of the fact that a sea of solar plants have been built there,” said Swati D’Souza, the former climate change research lead at the National Foundation of India. “This kind of a story is not spoken about... when everyone speaks about green jobs.”

Automation at the park

The manpower numbers at the Rewa project, like much of the solar parks in the country, are set to decrease further.

“Now (the employment is) going to become even less because of new features,” said Amitav Mukerjee, the Project Head of one of the units owned by Sprng Energy. The developer has bought almost 550 robot cleaners from an Israeli-based company which will trace up and down the panel rows and dry clean, saving on water usage and labour costs. This unit’s total 200-force force (including daily wage labourers hired by sub-contractors) will soon be slashed to 130.

Mukerjee said he saw the Mahindra unit of the plant adopt new panel tilt technology, which changes the degree of the panels according to the sun’s direction, and thought, “if they are going to add a new technology, then why not us, too.”

The use of technology in renewable energy projects is further reducing the number of jobs.
The use of technology in renewable energy projects is further reducing the number of jobs / Credit: Karisha Mehrotra.

Upjeet Singh Arora, district renewable energy officer with the state-owned Urja Vikas Nigam Limited, who is overseeing seven districts including Rewa, said: “This field is such that you find something new every day. Whenever you have problems, the solutions come right away. The new panels coming in will mean even more energy in a smaller area. Then, it will be even fewer people per megawatt.”

He added that Madhya Pradesh is looking to build parks as concentrated as possible, meaning bigger plots of land that require even less manpower. Madhya Pradesh ranks the highest for utility-scale projects, as large-scale projects that feed into the energy grid are known.

The one job at solar parks across the country, however, that isn’t seeing any automation on the horizon is grass cutting.

Out of the 17 people in one of the Rewa units working in the brown grass patches butting up against the panels, Viran Pathak is a newer recruit. After seven years of working with Honda, the automobile company that makes two-wheelers, in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Gujarat, the lockdown in 2020 had brought his whole family back to Badwar, the village where the Rewa solar park is located. He used to get Rs 18,000 with Honda, but for the past two months in Rewa, he makes roughly Rs 10,000 a month depending on his workdays.

“I thought it would be better to do some work than sit at home, but this is still not enough money,” he said. He claimed the manager from Honda had been calling him every day, asking him to get back to the job, but for now, he had decided to stay. “I have made my pass to work here until June. Let’s see how much money I can make.”

This story was produced with support from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Scroll.in on 11 February 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: India's largest solar park at Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, employs less than 500 people / Credit: Karishma Mehrotra

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