Reviews and Interventions

Turbines of Trouble: A Question of Scale and Land

Travelling towards the 700 year old villages of Jakhau and Budiya from the small town of Naliya in Kutch, Gujarat, we are greeted by a pleas-ant sight of a vast stretch of a mix of scrubland and grassland merging with Arabian Sea and the horizon. Tis expansive landscape is dotted with wind turbines, moving in the plentiful wind, as far as the eye can see. It all seems like a green utopia, put in place by companies with the generous support of the Gujarat Government. But out here the villagers do not seem to be very welcoming about the arrival of the renewable energy future to their lands. Why is this so?

India and Wind Energy

Over the years wind energy projects have grown both in size and popularity. According to the Global Wind Energy Council, the total installed wind energy capacity worldwide is 318,137 MW. Wind energy production is led by China with an installed capacity of 91,424 MW followed by US with 61,091 MW, Germany with 34,250 MW, Spain with 22,959 MW and India at the fifth position with 20,150 MW installed capacity (GWEC, 2014, ‘Global Statistics’, Global Wind Energy Council). India kicked off its energy diversification into wind energy in the 1980s when the Government of India setup the Commission for Additional Sources of Energy (CASE), which, in 1992, was upgraded to a full fledged Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources —renamed as the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) in 2006. According to a 2011 report, ‘Strategic plan for New and Renewable energy sector for the period 2011-17’ published by MNRE; and another ‘Estimation of Installable Wind Power Potential at 80m level in India’ published by Centre for Wind Energy Technology (CWET), in 2005, India has a potential of harnessing 48500 MW at 50 metre height and 102,788 MW at 80 metre height of energy from wind projects. Indian wind energy generation has grown from 1667 MW during the 9th Five Year Plan to 20,150 MW during the currently ongoing 12th Five Year Plan. According to the CWET, among the various Indian states Gujarat has the highest potential to generate energy from wind; 10,609 MW at 50-metre height and 35,071 MW at 80-metre height. Gujarat is followed by Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. Windmills have become an important technology in today’s carbon constrained world in producing electricity which is virtually emission free. Not only is the electricity production emission free, but windmills are also said to put little pressure on resources like water and land. But is this really so? One wind turbine might produce green energy that is renewable; it is clean and should last many decades. But what happens when there is suddenly a large scale wind farms, com-prising hundreds if not thousands of turbines, dotted around hundreds of square kilometres of land, as is the case with Kutch, Gujarat, which has become a haven for this brave new world of wind power?

The Trouble with Turbines

The sense of apathy and resistance towards wind energy projects is not unique to the villages of Jakhau and Budiya in Kutch. Similar observations have been made by researchers in various parts of India, including Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, as well as in other parts of the world, such as the United Kingdom, United States, Brazil, Mexico and Honduras. In the Global North, this apathy or resistance is often dismissed as NIMBY-ism, (not in my backyard-ism), as communities living close to wind turbines are worried about their visual impact, noise pollution and psychological impacts (M Wolsink, 2000, ‘Wind power and the NIMBY-myth: Institutional capacity and the limited significance of public support’, Renewable Energy). But the situation in India is not simply of NIMBYism. India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) assumes that, because wind farms produce renewable energy, no environmental impact assessment (EIA) of these projects is required (‘Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2006, MoEF&CC). Tis approach is also evident in the recent discourse in the Indian Parliament where most questions regarding wind power generation are to do with numbers of turbines and projects. Yet, the social and environmental impacts of these projects are often taken for granted.

Ecological Impacts

The most direct and visible impact that wind mills have on the natural world is their impact on birds, which has been studied quite extensively in countries like the US and UK (C Purett et al. 2009, ‘It’s not easy being green: Wind energy and declining grassland bird’, BioScience; S Phillips, 2011, ‘Wind energy and wildlife research at the Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Centre’). The biggest impact of windmills is felt on bats and raptors (SR Kumar et al., 2012, ‘Impact of wind turbines on birds: a case study from Gujarat, India’), though several measures are being taken by windmill manufacturers to safeguard these birds. In the case of Kutch it has been observed that windmills and the transmission lines not only pose a risk to the critically endangered birds, like Great Indian Bustards, but also to other species, like vultures, Macqueen’s Bustard (Houbara Bustard), Lesser Florican and to the White Backed vultures found in the area (A M S Ali, et al., 2012, ‘Preliminary survey of avifauna around wind farm of Jangi region, Kutch district, Gujarat, India’, Scientific Journal of Zoology). In fact, according to Vibhu Prakash, Principal Scientist, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), who is also in charge of the vulture breeding programme, “Windmills do create problems for birds, especially for large birds like the raptors. They can get sucked into the windmills and get injured. However, its impact in India has not been documented so far. There have been a few studies in USA and Scotland though” (S Kumar, September 19, 2007, ‘Vultures grounded by windmills’, Indian Express).The threats windmills pose to birds are not only from the risk of collision with wind turbines but also other dangers, such as habitat fragmentation, habitat destruction and habitat loss. Tis does not just affect the birds, but the wider habitat itself and several other species, such as insects, mammals and reptiles, which are all interconnected in a complex food web (S Narwade, 2013, ‘Review of existing global guidelines, policies, and methodologies for the study of impact of windmills on birds and bats: requirements in India’, Buceros, Envis News Letter). Some of the wind farms installed are so huge in scale that it is likely that a domino effect of impact on the ecosystem is created, which in many cases is difficult to study in the short term. Alongside the impact on birds, the setting up of infrastructure, such as substations, maintenance offices and the turbines themselves, leads to the introduction of weeds in grazing lands. The changing grass compositions also has a direct impact on pastoral communities as well as people dependent on animal husbandry, which has been observed in Kutch. Large scale wind farms have also led to deforestation in ecologically sensitive places, like the Western Ghats in India, where Enercon (India) Limited has setup a 113 MW power project near the Bhimashankar Wildlife sanctuary which is home to the endangered Giant Indian Squirrel. A similar case of deforestation and impacts on wildlife has been observed in the Kalpavalli forest in Andhra Pradesh (L Gupta, 2013, ‘Kalpavalli Community Conserved Forest harmed by CDM project’, Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development). Hence, several organisations like the Centre for Science and Environment are already lobbying the Indian Government to bring wind power projects under the mandate of environmental impact assessment (CSE, 2013,‘EIA Guidelines: wind power’, Centre for Science and Environment).

Social Impacts

Alongside these environmental impacts, large scale wind farms also pose several social challenges. Host communities often feel alienated by these development projects because they do not directly benefit from them. In many places, such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, it has been observed that local communities hosting these projects are still living in conditions of poor electricity supply. Often they pay high electricity rates to their respective state electricity boards despite having hundreds of wind turbines at their doorsteps. These projects also do not generate any substantial employment for the host communities. While regular maintenance of turbines is required, this tends to be done by high skilled engineers from outside these communities. At best these wind farms generate a few security jobs for local villagers who guard the windmills. Yet, these are low wage jobs, as they are outsourced to private security agencies.

The sheer scale of wind energy projects in wind rich landscapes opens up possibilities for corporate land grabs. In Dhule, located in Maharashtra, India, for example, the land rights of 2000 adivasi were affected by hundreds of wind turbines on their traditional lands (E Vance, 2012, ‘Wind power: Clean energy, dirty business?’, The Christian Science Monitor). In Gujarat, too, wind energy companies like Suzlon are allotted land for setting up wind farms at the cost of dispossessing indigenous people from their land, and rural livelihoods are threatened by the privatisation of common land. Tis is part of a global phenomenon of the transition towards ‘green’ energy, implicating thousands ofl and based communities (A Scheidel, et al., 2012, ‘Energy transitions and the global land rush: Ultimate drivers and persistent consequences’, Global Environmental Change). This land grab is explicated by a new law proposed by the Rajasthan state government, which legally allows the change of use of agricultural land for setting up renewable energy projects like wind farms (Times News Network, September 19, 2014, ‘Now farmers can lease out land for solar, wind companies’, Times of India). Unfortunately, large scale wind farms pose the greatest danger to Indian grasslands and scrublands, which are officially known as ‘revenue land’. They get very little if any protection from the law when it comes to land grabs or protection from environmental degradation, as they are simply considered as ‘waste land’ (N D’souza, June 5, 2013, ‘India’s clean energy at the cost of biodiversity?’, First Post).

Endnote

Considering the ecological and social impacts that large-scale wind farms can have, it is very important that we take a step back from all the green advertising around windmills and question these projects in their social, ecological and geographical context. There is an urgent need to enact a cumulative environmental and social impact assessment of large-scale wind farms in India to minimise the ecological and social impacts the wind farms can have over a larger landscape. There is also a need to develop mechanisms which can promote the development of community based wind energy projects which develop wind farms at a scale suited to the needs of rural communities.

This article was originally published on Geography and You. Read the original article.

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