Is ‘green’ energy really green?

I drew a lot of flak for this one–have been called taking being ‘obstructionist’ being too far.  Is it? don’t we need to understand, assess and evaluate the impact of green energy? Given the tremendous impacts on wildlife–particularly on critically endangered birds like the GIB and and Lesser Floricans , as well as on pristine, biodiversity rich forests –it is important that projects go through  the rigour of scrutiny for conservation impacts. Another vital component that is missed out is public hearing. Shouldn’t the impacted communities atleast be heard?  Parineeta Dandekar writes  that in Himachal Pradesh, communities fought a long and lonely struggle against the 4.5 MW Hul project affecting drinking water security and irrigation in six villages, as well as ancient oak forests.

Yes, India needs to be energy secure, but the strategy needs to have a vision, and take all issues and perspectives into consideration.

Wind farms and hydel power projects are supposed to be environment-friendly as they produce clean and renewable energy. However, they adversely impact communities and ecosystems, cause massive deforestation and pillage ecologically vulnerable regions

At a workshop to map a conservation plan for the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, some of us raised the issue of the harmful impacts of ‘green’ energy projects and called for moratorium/strict regulation on these, in GIB and other important wildlife landscapes, given their devastating impacts on birds and natural habitats. This was met with much resistance from those concerned with planning and other sectors as it was perceived being too obstructionist.

To understand this issue, let’s examine the question: How ‘green’ is green energy? While not concentrating on their efficacy as a reliable and optimal source of energy, I would like to underline the fact that the viability of this sector is heavily subsidy-dependent and also relies on fossil fuels for infrastructure installation and maintenance. I will also focus on their impact on wildlife as well as wind and mini-hydel projects which are being aggressively promoted in India.

Globally, India ranks fifth in wind power generation with an installed capacity of 20,149MW, with an additional 6,000MW expected to be installed in 2014. Wind energy accounts for 1.6 per cent of our power generation. While there is no denying their minimal impact on climate change, we are failing to take into account their devastating impacts on ecology and natural habitats, besides high mortality of birds and bats, due to direct collusion.

The scales are enormous. A recent US-based study indicated that wind turbines kill between 1,40,000 and 3,28,000 birds annually. Published in the journal Biological Conservation last December, the study also finds a greater risk of collusion from giant turbines, which are  more energy efficient.

In the Indian context, wind energy has similar disastrous implications.

We visited Mokhla, a 40sqkm patch of pristine grassland, some 20 miles from the Desert National Park as the crow flies. We spotted the tiny pugmarks of a desert cat, saw long billed vultures hunched over a kill, and overhead a falcon took flight. It’s a great potential GIB habitat, but with windmills surrounding the grassland, its passage is lost.

Just about a 100 GIBs remain in the wild today, and the status of the lesser florican is only marginally better. With their habitats hammered by massive encroachments, ill-thought afforestation programmes, industry, real estate and canals, this new and seemingly benign industry could well be a death knell.

Further down100 mt Down stream minihydle project in Western Ghats of Karnataka. Photo- Niren Jain south, the slopes of the Western Ghats, a bio-diversity hotspot, are equally favoured for windmills. The high altitude Bubabudangiri Hills in Chikmagalur district of Karnataka have strong air currents, providing an ideal environment for raptors and other birds. The vegetation here supports populations of tigers, gaurs, elephants, hornbills, and other wild animals. These forests protect vital watersheds of the Bhadra river and form a buffer for the tiger reserve of the same name. The environment is also ideal for wind mill projects, because of which about 220 wind turbines are proposed to come up along 42km of this ridge.

Setting up the turbines and their maintenance will require a well-connected and wide road system, transmission lines, staff quarters which in turn will mean destroying and fragmenting fragile forests. However, here a consistent battle by a network of conservationists, Up stream minihydle project in Western Ghats of Karnataka. Photo- Niren JainNGOs and committed forest officers has seen a limited success in stalling some of these damaging projects. While a few may have been halted, the threat of new projects loom large because such eco-fragile regions do not have the legal protection status of a forest.

The Madhav Gadgil report on the Western Ghats pointed out the destructive impacts of wind mills, coming down hard on the 113MW wind power project being developed near the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra, which it said, “caused substantial forest destruction, triggered large-scale soil erosion and landslides because of poor construction of roads on steep gradients.”

Small hydel projects with an installed capacity of less than 25MW are also aggressively promoted as renewable energy, and currently with an installed capacity of 3,632MW in March 2013, with a target to increase it by about 2,000MW by 2017. They are heavily subsidised, enjoy various tax breaks, due to its minimal impacts on climate change, but have serious impacts on communities and ecosystems, causing massive deforestation, pillaging ecologically vulnerable valleys, particularly in the Himalayas, the Western and the Eastern Ghats.

As of December 2012, there were more than 40 such projects under implementation, and many more proposed in Uttarakhand. Similarly, many such hydel projects are also proposed in the Western Ghats. Though there is currently a stay order by a High Court in Karnataka, the threat of these ‘little green monsters’ — dubbed by noted wildlife scientist Ullas Karnath — continues.

Ironically, such ‘green’ projects are not in the environment regulatory framework, falling outside the purview of the Environment Impact Assessment notification, thus escaping processes of public consultation and scrutiny for impacts on wildlife. Developers are known to break down big projects into smaller ones to avoid crucial environment filters.

As India looks at developing its renewable energy sector,  it is imperative that we assess, understand and take on board the grave impacts of such alternate energy sources and ensure that they follow strict regulatory processes.

Photographs:

The first is Up stream minihydle project in Western Ghats of Karnataka, while the second is  the minihydle project 100 mt downstream.

(The writer is trustee, ‘Bagh’ and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife)

This article first appeared in The Pioneer

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