India Plans to Increase Height of Solar Panels so Farming Can Continue Below

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The Wire, India

Solar plant covering farmland in Karnataka, India / Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The biggest victim of India’s solar revolution has been land – especially hundreds of acres in arid and semi-arid regions. When a large solar park is set up, a vast patch of land goes under the solar panels. The Government of India has maintained that most such land is barren and unfit for farming. However, if India is to generate 100 gigawatts (GW) of solar power by 2022, it is only a matter of time before agricultural land also goes under.

Recently, officials of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) said they’re working on a workaround.

“We are actively working on a policy to ensure that will give solar companies an option to have legal agreements with farmers wherein farming can continue if the height of the panels is increased,” Gopal Krishna Gupta, joint secretary at the MNRE, told The Wire at the India Pavilion at the recently concluded COP24 in Katowice, Poland. “We are simply giving [solar companies] an additional opportunity.”

It’s unknown if private companies are willing to take on the extra cost. Gupta added that the discussions were nearing their close, and that “we can expect it very shortly.”

Also read: The Paradox of Expanding Solar Parks

Each megawatt of electricity generated from solar parks requires 5-7 acres of land. With an installed capacity of 24 GW, nearly 500 sq. km of land now lies in the shadow of solar panels. By 2022, India has to install 75 GW more to meet its target – that’s 1,500-2,000 sq. km more.

“Now we are thinking of increasing the lease to Rs 30,000 per acre. Going forward, we will only lease the land and not acquire it,” Gupta said. “The farmers will continue to own the land. They can set up solar parks or tie up with developers.”

The MNRE’s job in this setup will be to “ensure that farmers are not fleeced by anyone.”

Upendra Tripathy, director-general of the International Solar Alliance, pointed to Rwanda as an example.

“Here, the farmer is allowed to grow fodder under the panels and is paid for the cleaning services. The locals are also paid to bring water and clean the panels,” he said.

Some interventions remain necessary, but they only highlight the need for community participation further.

“The panels are installed at a height and automatically become flat if the wind gets too strong,” Tripathy added. “There is an agreement between the solar park authorities and the local community that operations inside the park will be fully labour-oriented.”

Also read: Can India’s Solar Revolution Help Meet Its Paris Agreement Emission Goals?

Increasing the height of solar installations also presents an economic challenge.

“In the Sundarbans, women grow tubers like turmeric and ginger on the side of the panel, where the water drips. We need more research on whether this kind of farming is scalable,” Tripathy explained. “While fodder can be grown and cut under panels, allowing for grazing might be dangerous for the animals.”

Activists have taken the line that, ultimately, the community’s needs should be prioritised.

“Commons like water and grazing area should not be diverted. When there is a drought, these are critical access points” for the community to sate its needs, Leo Saldanha of the Environment Support Group, Bengaluru, said. “There are no shortcuts to this problem and merely increasing the height is not going to solve it.”

It’s just one cog in a bigger machine, but a cog nonetheless.

This story was supported by the 2018 Climate Change Media Partnership, a collaboration between Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Foundation.

Karthikeyan Hemalatha is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore. He covers issues relating to the environment, climate change, agriculture and marine ecology.