We have to urgently reduce our carbon footprint to save the planet. But wind and solar farms carry a hidden price—often paid by endangered species like the Great Indian Bustard in the Thar desert. We look at the difficult environmental choices posed by green energy.
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First, some quick background
You probably already know this, but here’s why the entire world is rushing to embrace green energy.
The herculean task: A critical UN report released in March contained a single line: “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.” We are on track to shoot past the 1.5°C threshold by the first half of the 2030s. Humanity can avert disaster by reducing greenhouse gases by half by 2030 and adding zero carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by the early 2050s. And what it requires is straight-forward: giving up fossil fuels and embracing wind and solar energy.
The rush toward green energy: We won’t get into details but suffice to say the world spent $1.4 trillion in 2022 on clean energy—including wind, solar and EVs. That’s more than what we spent on new fossil fuel projects. The Russian invasion of Ukraine—and soaring oil prices—also served as a wake up call. In Europe, wind and solar account for 22% of electricity generation—and have overtaken the share of gas (20%) and coal (16%).
Stat to note: Global renewable power capacity is expected to grow by 2400 gigawatts (GW) over the 2022-2027 period—an amount equal to the entire power capacity of China today. Also this:
This massive expected increase is 30% higher than the amount of growth that was forecast just a year ago, highlighting how quickly governments have thrown additional policy weight behind renewables. The report finds that renewables are set to account for over 90% of global electricity expansion over the next five years, overtaking coal to become the largest source of global electricity by early 2025.
As for India: In 2021, we made a series of ambitious pledges to decrease our carbon footprint. By 2030, 50% of our electricity will come from non-fossil fuel resources—reducing carbon emissions by one billion tonnes. And we plan to achieve net zero carbon emissions—which refers to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible—by 2070. Right now, only 28% of our energy comes from renewable sources.
But our green energy sector is booming. We are projected to add 35 to 40 gigawatts of renewable energy each year—and will likely surpass that 50% target set for 2030. Fossil fuels—which account for 59% of our energy capacity—is expected to dip to 31.6% by that year. The pace of expansion even today is dizzying:
During the last 7.5 years, India has witnessed the fastest rate of growth in renewable energy capacity addition among all large economies. Renewable energy capacity (including large hydro) has grown 1.97 times and solar energy expanded over 18 times. Wind power installed capacity too has increased 1.9 times to about 40 GW, with the country now having the 4th largest wind power capacity in the world.
But that’s great news! What’s wrong with green energy?
Absolutely nothing. Let’s be very clear at the outset: the consequences of not shifting away from fossil fuels are dire. But every choice has a tradeoff—which we can minimise if we recognise it. And that’s why Greta Thunberg—the icon of the climate change movement—was arrested in Norway for protesting wind farms.
The Thunberg view: The Norwegian government gave permission to set up a massive wind farm in the heart of the country. The problem: two of the planned farms are located in areas where the indigenous people—the Sami—herd reindeer in the winter:
The animals steer clear of the turbines because they are disturbed by their view and noise. On top of that, in the coldest months large chunks of icy snow can be thrown into the distance as the blades turn. It is dangerous for humans and animals alike.
Despite their objections, the farms went into operation in 2019. There have been fierce protests demanding their closure ever since. According to Thunberg:
Indigenous rights, human rights, must go hand-in-hand with climate protection and climate action. That can't happen at the expense of some people. Then it is not climate justice.
OTOH, the 151 turbines can power around 100,000 Norwegian households—which may otherwise use fossil fuels.
The problem with wind farms: is that they use turbines with rotating blades to generate power. Since their introduction in 1980, the blades have grown to gargantuan sizes—and can measure 100 metres in diameter—and tower 100 to 120 metres off the ground. And that makes them lethal to birds and bats. Example, vultures—which have been crashing into wind turbines across southern Europe and Africa:
Vultures have such large blind spots in their visual field that they cannot see objects directly in front of them when they fly. This discovery explains why vultures frequently collide with conspicuous structures such as wind turbines and power lines, despite having some of the sharpest eyes of any animal.
This problem is common to all birds of prey that look down at the ground for food. For instance, wind farms in Spain pose a threat to the threatened imperial eagle.
Also, bats: Wind farms kill hundreds of migrating bats in the US—because they often “mistake slow or stopped turbine blades for trees.”
And what about India?
Our dilemma is best summed up by the Great Indian Bustard—a “critically endangered” species. There are only 150 in the wild—of which 90 are located in protected areas in Rajasthan. The Thar desert in Rajasthan and the Kutch region in Gujarat also offer the best locations for solar and wind farms—both of which pose a serious hazard.
The blind Indian Bustard: The population of these birds has fallen by 75% in the past 30 years. The main reason: They can’t see power lines of any kind:
The majestic, endangered bird is massive, making it slow to manoeuvre in flight. It has poor frontal vision, and an unfortunate habit of scanning the earth while flying across the flat grasslands of India’s western borders. That combination too often sets it on a fatal collision course with power lines.
There are nearly 7,200 km of overhead lines just in Rajasthan—used to transfer solar power into the grid.
The Degrai Oran problem: As with the Sami in Norway, the lands earmarked for wind farms have disrupted local communities. In Rajasthan, there are a number of orans—or sacred groves. For instance, the Degrai Oran is in the middle of a 13,000 square kilometre area that is rich in biodiversity. It is also among the last natural habitats of the Great Indian Bustard. These green spaces have been left untouched for centuries by local farmers:
It is more than 600 years old and was declared a protected area by ruler Vikramdev in the 15th century. Felling of trees is forbidden in the area. We just collect the dead branches on the ground and pluck ripened fruits for ourselves, the rest is all for the animals and birds.
But power companies have come flooding in—and started felling trees—and setting up power lines—inevitably enraging the farmers.
The conservationist argument: While they are fully in favour of green energy, they point out that great efforts to save the Great Indian Bustard hardly matter—if we are busy shrinking their natural habitats. And the power lines pose a threat to a variety of species—not just the bustard:
It has been well observed that transmission lines and GIBs cannot coexist. Even other birds like raptors, floricans, demoiselle cranes and migratory birds get killed because of the power lines. Except for the Pokhran field firing range and the Desert Park, there are transmission lines everywhere. Even the oran has not been spared.
You can clearly see the problem in the map below:
A Supreme Court solution: The Court has ordered companies to take at least part of their power lines underground. The ask is fairly modest: “Close to 800 km, or about 10% of the length of proposed power lines in the Thar and Kutch deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat should be re-routed or made to go underground.”
But, but, but: This doesn’t cover existing lines. In 2021, the Supreme Court told companies to move all low-voltage power lines in protected areas to be moved below the ground. At the time, companies complained the directive would entail an added cost of $4 billion—and jeopardise nearly 20 gigawatts of solar and wind projects. This may explain why none of the companies have complied with the Court orders as yet.
Why don’t we move them to a better location?
Sure, but where will we find the vast swathes of open space required? Like it or not, the shift to renewable energy will result in environmental damage. According to a 2022 report, if we were to maximise renewable energy production, we will lose 11 million hectares of natural habitat—including over 3 million hectares in key biodiversity areas. Another unhappy fact: the loss will also release almost 415 million tonnes of stored carbon into the atmosphere.
Point to note: This habitat loss rarely gets attention—especially if it involves green projects. German residents trying to save woodlands feel "powerless, helpless and angry”—because the media will highlight the protests against clearing a forest for a lignite mine—but not a wind farm.'
So this is a lose-lose proposition?
As with most public debates, the most exaggerated claims and demands get the greatest attention. Here’s one reality check: other human activity poses far greater threats to birds than solar or wind farms. In India, bird species are declining due to agriculture, mining, urban development, pollution etc. Solar or wind farms come at the bottom of that list.
The other reality check: Small but critical modifications often result in great benefits. Example: the mortality rate in vultures dropped by 50% in Spain when companies turned off their turbines when the birds were observed nearby. Energy production fell by just 0.7% per year. A US study found that modifying blade speed can reduce the number of bat fatalities by between 50 and 87%. Our precious bustard could be saved from wind farms, at least, just by painting one of the three blades black.
The bottomline: When the Supreme Court asked companies to take their low voltage lines underground, a solar company CEO darkly warned: “The whole renewable industry, especially solar, could come to a standstill.” In environmental debates, each side (companies or activists) paints the activities of their opponents as catastrophic. And that doesn’t help anyone—least of all, the planet.
Moneycontrol has a good piece on how renewable energy is threatening India’s bird population—while Deutsche Welle offers a global view. Down To Earth and this Hindu column look at the threats to the Great Indian Bustard in Rajasthan. This older column from Bloomberg News via The Print is more sympathetic to the plight of power companies. The Hindu has more on the recent Supreme Court order. Also in The Hindu: more on the damage done by Indian solar farms. To get a better idea of the impact across India, read more about studies done in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.