Girl looking at camera in front of solar panels.
Photo by: Ashley Cooper pics / Alamy Stock Photo

This podcast miniseries, “Just Transition in Action,” shares perspectives and insights from people around the world to illustrate what we’ve learned about how to shift toward a net-zero economy without leaving any workers or communities behind. 

Today’s episode takes us to the Pavagada solar park in southwest India — the third-largest solar park in the world, and a huge sign of progress in the country’s efforts to ramp up renewable energy capacity. But other large-scale solar projects must learn from Pavagada’s missteps. 

 

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"On the whole, I believe the advantages are much, much higher than the disadvantages. There is no other way in which these people could have got the income that they could get from leasing out to the solar park."

– Sheshagiri Rao, Agricultural Scientist, Farmer

 

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"Energy security should co-exist with nutritional security, livelihood security, water security, and dignity for the people who parted with their land. It has to ensure that there is some kind of equity, that they also benefit in many ways, their education, their access to health, their daily nutritional requirement."

– Bhargavi Rao, Director (Research), Centre for Financial Accountability

 

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"Today India has less than 100 gigawatts of solar power. But by 2050, this needs to scale up to almost 1,500 gigawatts. As the solar energy scales up in India, solar parks like Pavagada will be the template for future expansion of solar power."

– Ulka Kelkar, Climate Director, WRI India

 

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Transcript:

Nicholas Walton 00:05

Hello and welcome to WRI’s Big Ideas Into Action podcast with me, Nicholas Walton. This is part of a special series on just transition, and the critical issues that we’re grappling with in the transition to a low-carbon economy. In this episode we go to India, and look at what happened in the local community when some seemingly underused land was transformed into a solar energy park.

Sheshagiri Rao 00:27

The farm owners got money, but the agriculture laborer who depended on working in the farm, they have lost the source of livelihood.

Bhargavi Rao 00:37

The people did not know that they would lose complete access to their land, it was only after the fences came up.

Ulka Kelkar 00:44

As the solar energy scales up in India, solar parks like Pavagada will be the template for future expansion of solar power.

Nicholas Walton 00:55

Hello and welcome to this special WRI series on just transition. In this series we’re exploring the impacts on people’s lives and communities as we shift away from fossil fuels. You can find out much more at wri.org/just-transitions, where we’ve set up a resources page with lots of case studies.

As some of these show, the impacts of the low-carbon transition can sometimes be quite obvious, such as when a coal-fired power plant closes down and the workers need to find new jobs. But sometime the impacts are not so predictable. In this episode, we’re going to the state of Karnataka in India, where the government has built one of the world’s largest solar parks, and in doing so has thrown up some unintended consequences. Here’s my colleague Molly Bergen with the story.

Molly Bergen 1:41

At COP26 in Glasgow, Prime Minister Modi announced that India aims to meet 50% of its energy needs with renewable energy by 2030. A key strategy to achieve this goal is to build large-scale renewable energy projects on land that the government does not consider “productive” for other uses.

Pavagada is a key piece of the puzzle. It’s a two-gigawatt solar park that stretches over 13,000 acres. That makes it the third-largest solar park in the world at the moment. But where did the land for Pavagada come from? Dr. Sheshagiri Rao is an agricultural scientist and farmer who lives nearby.

Sheshagiri Rao 2:15

Pavagada is a semi-arid region, about 50 centimeters annual rainfall. Water stress is very high and the risk for crop production is also very high. It has one of the lowest population densities in the country. It is a very poorly developed region, there is no industry nearby, the major livelihood which is successful seems to be sheep and goat keeping. People were anyway going to leave the land fallow, because they were not going to get any profit out of it, because of the high risk due to climate variability.

Molly Bergen 2:51

Pavagada was built on this land that the government considered “unproductive.” But the park didn’t buy the land; instead the state-owned utility took out a 28-year lease and sends direct annual payments to 3,000 local landowners.

Sheshagiri Rao 3:05

Each of them get about 25,000 rupees every year per acre. So you can see, it’s a huge advantage for the people here, and they have really made good use of this money. You can really see prosperity in this region.

Molly Bergen 3:20

These 3,000 local landowners, then, are pleased with the deal. But is it that simple? Bhargavi Rao is with the Centre for Financial Accountability. She’s done extensive research on the impacts of Pavagada on local communities, and says the main beneficiaries have been the large farmers who’ve used the money to develop businesses based around the solar park.

Bhargavi Rao 3:41

It was the large farmers who had lost interest in farming. So for them, it was a great thing that the land was being used for the solar park. They are able to invest that money — they have bought bulldozers, they have bought trucks, they have bought cars, which they give it on hire for all the solar park developers and investors and others who come there. Some of them have even built hotels.

Molly Bergen 4:09

For smaller farmers, though, who may only own a few acres of land, the solar park’s development posed some new challenges. Although some consultations were held with local communities, many people did not understand the extent to which the solar park would impact their lives. Unlike coal mines and other infrastructure projects, the government has made solar parks exempt from environmental impact assessments, meaning they can be built without considering the wide range of impacts they might have.

Bhargavi Rao 4:34

The people did not know that they would lose complete access to their land. So there's barbed wire everywhere and so nobody can ever enter their land. And people didn't realize that, it was only after the fences came up.

Sheshagiri Rao 4:49

There is a loss of grazing land. In India, we have an open grazing policy. There are some small rules; as long as you respect those rules, you can go and graze your sheep and goat anywhere.

Bhargavi Rao 5:02

For the small and marginal farmers, even in the drought times, the women of the household would go around collecting all kinds of herbs and shrubs and leaves and tubers, which formed a very important part of their daily diet. And they also collected twigs and other things, because many of the homes in this area in these small villages are still dependent on biomass for cooking. Many women have lost all kinds of livelihood possibilities that were there in the past. Like they would collect grasses, make brooms out of it, they weaved baskets and other things, all of that which brought some kind of income now and then is all gone now.

Nicholas Walton 5:51

You’re listening to WRI’s Big Ideas Into Action podcast, and a special series on just transition.

Molly Bergen 5:59

Bhargavi Rao says the fencing around the Pavagada park also led to much longer distances for people to walk to local services like schools and health centers. Meanwhile, the fact that those who received money got a lump sum once a year led to other challenges.

Bhargavi Rao 6:13

The rural families have a variety of debts. They're getting their daughter's married, or health care, or a bunch of other things takes a toll on them. And this money even before it comes, will just go away from their hands, it is not a cash in hand that comes every month and they can save a little bit.

Molly Bergen 6:34

But as they lost access to the land and the chance to make money by grazing animals, there was always the promise of new jobs being created. In fact when the Pavagada park was being built, it was projected that around there would be around 8,000. But most have not materialized. While many farmers get money for their land, the farm workers and laborers lost out.

Sheshagiri Rao 6:53

The farm owners got money, but the agriculture laborer who depended on working in the farm, they have lost the source of livelihood.

Bhargavi Rao 7:03

Most men have left in search of jobs, and mostly they end up doing construction jobs, or taxi driving and security guards and that kind of odd jobs, which pays them very little. And to live in a city like Bangalore and send money back home is very, very challenging.

Molly Bergen 7:22

Other problems are being addressed. For instance the solar panels are now cleaned by robots without using precious water in a drought-prone region. And attention is also focused on how the land can be used for multiple purposes that benefit the local people.

Sheshagiri Rao 7:36

There is an interesting concept that is coming up, can you do solar panels and agricultural farming together?

Bhargavi Rao 7:43

There is a new policy that was introduced last year called the KUSUM policy, where farmers are able to grow under the solar panels, a variety of vegetables and other things. And they've also found out that the microclimate is very good for the growth of these crops. And it is also good for the solar panels because apparently they don't get heated up.

Molly Bergen 8:08

The experience of the Pavagada solar park is that the impact of building such a facility is complicated, even if the land is poor and unpromising. The way it affects local communities can be complex, unpredictable and difficult. But as many more solar parks are planned around the world, the lessons of Pavagada can prove invaluable elsewhere. Here’s Sheshagiri Rao again.

Sheshagiri Rao 8:30

We had experts from 60 countries come and study our model of solar park development. All the global major solar energy producing companies are here. There are three more such parks coming up in India, of two-gigawatt scale. On the whole, I believe the advantages are much, much higher than the disadvantages. There is no other way in which these people could have got the income that they could get from leasing out to the solar park.

Bhargavi Rao 9:00

Energy security should co-exist with nutritional security, livelihood security, water security, and dignity for the people who parted with their land. It has to ensure that there is some kind of equity, that they also benefit in many ways, their education, their access to health, their daily nutritional requirement. So everything can coexist well.

Molly Bergen 9:27

That was Bhargavi Rao, on how she believes progress toward a low-carbon economy needs to be sensitive about the needs of the people whose lives are disrupted — just one of the lessons that have been learned from the construction of the Pavagada solar park.

Here’s more analysis from Ulka Kelkar, the climate director of WRI India.

Ulka Kelkar 9:45

So today India has less than 100 gigawatts of solar power. But by 2050, this needs to scale up to almost 1,500 gigawatts. As the solar energy scales up in India, solar parks like Pavagada will be the template for future expansion of solar power. So we need to make sure that we do several things. For example, can we allow sheep to graze in the solar park? This will make rural livelihoods more resilient to climate impacts. Second, we need to make sure that rural youth and women get access to skilling programs for new green jobs. Can we have employment generation schemes for the landless workers in the village who have been displaced by this infrastructure creation? Third, we need to harness the full potential of renewable energy options that are less land-intensive — for example, rooftop solar photovoltaic, or offshore wind, which right now is very expensive. And finally, we need to introduce environmental impact assessment and social impact assessment processes, and ensure that the local community participates in these processes. That way, renewable energy can also become responsible energy.

Nicholas Walton 11:01

And that was Ulka Kelkar, the climate director of WRI India. The reporter on this and the previous three just transition podcasts in the series was Molly Bergen of WRI’s climate team. You can find those other podcasts and plenty more resources examining just transition, on a special resources section of our website: that’s at wri.org/just-transitions. And of course you can track down and subscribe to all of our podcasts at wri.org/podcasts, or on your favorite podcast app. I’m Nicholas Walton, and thanks for listening.