Farmers have long battled for access to water as factories encroach on agricultural land. Their newest adversary has Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s backing: solar power farms looking for acreage to build on. Photo: Bloomberg
Farmers have long battled for access to water as factories encroach on agricultural land. Their newest adversary has Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s backing: solar power farms looking for acreage to build on. Photo: Bloomberg

Solar parks on fertile land are new adversary of farmers

While govt said land needs will be reduced by putting 40% of the planned capacity on rooftops, some analysts have doubts about that target

New Delhi: If a lack of water doesn’t drive Natthu Raja off his farm, an abundance of sunlight might.

Indian farmers have long battled for access to water as factories encroach on agricultural land. Their newest adversary has Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s backing: solar power farms looking for acreage to build on.

Raja, who grows lentils in Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh, says officials have told him solar power developers may want to buy his land. Growing lentils doesn’t provide much income, yet Raja says without it he has no future.

“Good agricultural land is fast disappearing, taken away by industrial projects," said Devinder Sharma, chairman of the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, an advocacy group. “Several highways have been built on extremely fertile land. We can’t allow solar plants to add to the problem."

India’s cultivable land area shrank by about 400,000 hectares to 182 million hectares in the three years to March 2011, according to the latest available farm ministry figures. The states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, known as the nation’s granaries, reported some of the biggest declines. These are the same states that plan additions to solar capacity.

“It will definitely affect agriculture output, and a debate on that is just starting," said Raveesh Budania, a partner at Gurgaon-based consultancy Headway Solar Pvt.

Farming tradition

Industry-or-agriculture has been a perennial dilemma in the world’s second-most populated country, where farming has been the traditional livelihood for more than half of India’s 1.25 billion people.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came into power in May with promises to win foreign investment and create jobs, aims to transform the economy into a global manufacturing hub. His first step: Keeping the lights on.

Electricity supply in parts of India falls short by as much as 20% during peak hours, according to the power ministry. Plus, most of that power is generated by burning coal, which makes India’s emission pollution the highest in the world after the US and China.

Modi, who pioneered India’s first solar incentives as chief minister of Gujarat, wants companies to spend $160 billion in the next seven years building 100 gigawatts of solar power capacity. That would catapult solar from providing less than 1% of India’s annual electricity needs to almost a third of current demand.

New York

While the government has said the land needs will be reduced by putting 40% of the planned capacity on rooftops, some analysts have doubts about that target.

The main obstacle with off-grid rooftops will be that the generation and consumption patterns may not match for every household,’’ said Bharat Bhushan Agrawal, a New Delhi-based analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “If you include storage devices, the cost goes up significantly.’’

Without rooftops, the plan would require 50,000 solar farms of an industrial scale of 20 megawatts each. At 100 acres per project, that would cover about 500,000 acres (202,343 hectares) or about twice the size of New York City.

While that’s just a fraction of India’s 3.12 million square kilometer landmass, solar farms look for locations near urban areas where the demand is, as well as for easy connection to power transmission grids. The further from urban areas, the higher the costs to build transmission lines to the grid and the more power is lost in transmission.

“There’s plenty of arid land available, but they are far away from substations and evacuating electricity from there costs much higher because of transmission losses," said Shekhar Pathak, chief executive officer (CEO) at MBH Power, which bought agricultural land for a solar power station in Gujarat.

Farmland is favoured even though prices can be as high as 10 times those of wasteland parcels, Pathak said.

“Integrating solar plants with the grid and the stability of the grid are important issues in far-flung areas," said Agrawal of BNEF. “If it makes more sense to put up panels on farmland, companies will choose to buy farmland."

Land status

That puts the pressure on farmers like Raja, who face drought and crop failures during summer heatwaves that leads them into debt. While selling the land is a way out, Raja wants to hold on to his because it’s security for the future and gives him status in society as a landowner, he said.

There were several takers for Modi’s solar plan at a conference in New Delhi last month. Companies, including Adani Enterprises Ltd and Welspun Group, committed to set up 166 gigawatts of solar capacity, or more than half again of the government’s target.

Modi’s solar goals also raise quality control risks, said Tobias Engelmeier, founder of New Delhi-based consultancy Bridge to India Energy Pvt. Quality will suffer if state-run companies are ordered to quickly expand solar capacity, he said.

“From the perspective of what the situation is today, the target is huge, Engelmeier said. ‘‘It’s audacious and very ambitious.’’ Bloomberg

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