Solar power breaks a price barrier


In another barrier-breaking development, the auctioned price of solar photovoltaic (SPV) power per kilowatt hour has dropped below ₹3 to ₹2.97 in Madhya Pradesh, providing a clear pointer to the future course of renewable energy. The levellised tariff — factoring in a small annual increase for a given period of time — for the 750 MW Rewa project over a 25-year period is ₹3.29, which is less than half the rate at which some State governments signed contracts in recent years. The progress of this clean source of energy must be deepened with policy incentives, for several reasons. Arguably, the most important is the need to connect millions of people without access to electricity. A rapid scaling-up of solar capacity is vital also to meet the national goal of installing 100 gigawatts by 2022, a target that is being internationally monitored as part of the country’s pledges under the Paris Agreement on climate change. It will also be transformational for the environment, since pollution from large new coal-based power plants can be avoided. There is everything to gain by accelerating the pace of growth that essentially began in 2010, with the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission. Yet, performance has not matched intent and the target of installing 12 GW solar capacity in 2016-17 is far from attainable, since it fell short by almost 10 GW as of December.


A glaring lacuna in the national policy on renewables is the failure to tap the investment potential of the middle class. While grid-connected large-scale installations have received maximum attention, there is slow progress on rooftop solar. Clearly, adding capacity of the order of more than 10 GW annually over the next six years towards the 100 GW target will require active participation and investment by the buildings sector, both residential and commercial. This process can be kick-started using mass participation by citizens, with State electricity utilities being given mandatory time frames to introduce net-metering systems with a feed-in tariff that is designed to encourage the average consumer to invest in PV modules, taking grid electricity prices into account. The experience of Germany, where robust solar expansion has been taking place over the years, illustrates the benefits of policy guarantees for rooftop installations and feed-in tariffs lasting 20 years. SPV costs are expected to continue to fall, and tariffs paid both for large plants and smaller installations require periodic review. At some point, significant subsidies may no longer be necessary. That scenario, however, is for the future. Currently, India needs a lot more good quality power, which renewables provide. Solar power is an emissions-free driver of the economy, generating growth in both direct and indirect employment. A lot of sunlight remains to be tapped.

‘Religion’, ‘animal thirst’ cited as reasons to approve infra projects in wildlife areas

Religion, quenching animal thirst and public interests are some of the reasons cited by an environment ministry panel to recommend big ticket projects in and around India’s critical tiger and wildlife habitats.

About 50 such projects got nod at a meeting of the standing committee of the national board for wildlife (SC-NBWL) headed by environment minister Anil Madhav Dave, the minutes of the meeting released this week revealed.

Religion was invoked to allow widening of a road through Nagarjunasagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve in Andhra Pradesh. The project is dubbed “public utility for the devotees” as it would provide better connectivity between Atmakur to Kolanu Bharathi Temple.

The minutes of the meeting held on January 3 said the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) recommended the project after due feasibility assessment carried out by a team of officers and scientists.

While allowing a check dam at Balaram Ambji sanctuary in Gujarat, the committee maintained that the water stored there will help wildlife to quench their thirst during dry season.

A large area of the sanctuary will be utilised for building the dam.

The committee recommended an approach canal through Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary in Narmada district of Gujarat, stating it will provide irrigation facilities to farmers of 10 villages.

The panel also allowed conversion of meter gauge line to broad gauge through Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra as Indian Railways claimed that an alternate route would result in “felling of thousand of trees”.

The minutes showed that the railway’s claim has not been vetted by any expert agency and the concerns of the NTCA on impact of the faster train line through the reserve on tiger dispersal, habitat connectivity for genetic exchange and protection failed to find much consideration.

Minister Dave overruled the concerns and allowed the project saying the mitigation measures by the NTCA would be enforced through a memorandum of understanding with railways.

Pushp Jain of non-government EIA Resource Centre, however, said the government has failed to provide any assessment of the habitat loss because of the alternate route that could have benefitted people in districts of Akola, Amravati and Bhandara.

Conservationists say the conversion will also result in cutting of the trees on 161 hectares of the forestland but the convoluted minutes fail to provide details.

Ravi Singh, chief executive officer of World Wide Fund (WWF) for nature said the standing committee was within its rights to take these decisions as they did not violate any law. “One has to consider the pressure of devotees or demand for development by locals. But, it does not mean that the government should not improve habitat for wildlife,” he told HT.

The NDA government has modified rules to expedite approvals in and around the wildlife areas for ease of doing business especially for mining, irrigation and linear projects.

An analysis of approvals by the highest advisory body of the environment ministry by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) showed that close to 400 projects have been approved by the NDA government in two-and-a-half years as compared to 260 by the UPA government in five years.

The rejection rate fell from 11.9% to 0.01% in the same period indicating that projects in green habitats have suddenly become feasible.

The CSE had said the ministry has introduced new norms to control pollution from these projects but panel members have expressed concern over monitoring its implementation. 

‘Renewables obviate need for new coal capacity’

The energy that would be available from renewable sources, nuclear and gas plants, both existing and planned, would be enough to meet India's energy demand for the next 7-8 years, which means no new investment in coal is needed at least till then, as per a report by TERI.

The Transitions in Indian Electricity Sector report predicts that per capita annual power consumption will increase from the current 1,075 kWh to 1,490 kWh in 2021-22, 2,121 kWh in 2026-27 and 2,634 kWh in 2029-30.

Under the report’s ‘high renewables scenario’, the country’s renewable energy capacity is set to increase to the targeted 175 GW level by 2021-22 and further grow to 275 GW by 2025-26.

“The results indicate that the energy that would be available from RE (renewable energy) sources, storage hydro, nuclear and gas plants would suffice for meeting the remainder of the demand for electricity at the national level during the next 7-8 years,” TERI said. “This would in other words mean that no new coal plants would be needed and the plant load factor (PLF) of coal based plants would be in the range of 78-80% in 2024–25 and 2025–26.”

With the energy mix set to undergo a radical change in the coming years, TERI said the Centre would do well to take steps to strengthen the grid infrastructure and build storage capacity.

“The increasing penetration of solar and wind (which have inherent high intermittency and variability) would no doubt present a number of challenges in respect to planning and operation,” it said. “...ensuring requisite flexibility in ramping up and down, improved forecasting of RE power as well as demand, improved financial health of utilities would be key factors in this context.” 

National Board for Wildlife clears BG railway line project through Melghat

NAGPUR: In a move that will spell doom for tigers, the National Board for Wildlife(NBWL), the top decision making body on projects falling in and around protected areas (PAs), has cleared diversion of 160.94 hectare forest area of Wan sanctuary inside Melghat Tiger Reserve (MTR) for upgradation of metre gauge railway line.

The railways has taken up work on Akola-Khandwa (176km) gauge conversion work between vulnerable Akot-Amlakhurd railway stations under South Central Railway (SCR). It involves diversion of 160.94 ha forest area of Wan and cuts the reserve towards southern tip.

The issue had figured in April 5, 2016 meeting of state board for wildlife (SBWL) in which, owing to opposition from a section of members, it was decided to form a panel to conduct site inspection. The state's chief wildlife warden has already recommended the project with certain mitigation measures.

Of the 176km railway line, over 38km passes through wildlife rich area of tiger reserve and buffer zone. Yet, the upgradation was recommended as there was tremendous pressure from the MoEFCC to clear the project at any cost.

On May 9-10, 2016, a five-member expert panel conducted detailed assessment with regard to feasibility of the project, vis-a-vis tiger dispersal, habitat connectivity for genetic exchange, protection threat at present and after the project impact by NTCA.

The project is going to cause permanent damage to wildlife and tigers, that migrate till Muktainagar in Jalgaon and beyond. However, the railways is of view that alternative route will involve felling of thousands of trees and would lead to cost escalation by several times. No mention is made by what amount the cost will escalate.

Sources said, when NBWL meeting was held on January 3, environment minister was not ready to listen anything against the project. Hence, the Standing Committee of NBWL recommended it subject to mitigation measures.

On the contrary, ex-member of NBWL Kishor Rithe, who was member of the joint inspection panel, had suggested an alternate alignment in the same report where PCCF (wildlife) had suggested mitigation measures further, if alignment is not possible.

Later, Rithe, in his representation to railway minister Suresh Prabhu on June 9, had said that work between Amalakhurd-Akot (77.5km) passes through hilly part of MTR. "If the railways follow the same alignment and gradient, it will not allow to attain the speed more than 60 kmph and also won't connect maximum villages from Akola-Amravati and Buldhana districts. Considering both the aspects, people in this region as well as MTR administration had demanded diversion of this line through plain area to maximize benefits," said Rithe.

Elaborating its numerous negative impacts on wildlife, Rithe stated that present line passes through core area and has caused deaths of many wild animals and reptiles, especially during monsoon and winter. There are several incidents of using this train route for illegally transporting forest produce and wildlife derivatives from the reserve.

Earlier, PK Srivastava, the then GM of SCR, had conducted a detailed inspection of this line on May 29, 2014, and had suggested alternative route from outside sanctuary area. Accordingly, an alternate route bypassing sanctuary was planned but due to political interference the plan was killed.

"The change to broad gauge is bound to increase traffic and disturbance in the reserve. This would certainly result in increase in animal kills and increase in trafficking of wildlife," says Pushp Jain, director, EIA Resource and Response Centre.

Green nod for 960 infrastructure projects in two years

In the backdrop of the environment ministry’s budgetary allocation going up by 19% for 2017-18, an official said as many as 960 infrastructure projects have been given environmental clearances (ECs) in the past two years.

According to the official, 770 projects with investment potential of Rs.10 trillion were given ECs between May 2014 and March 2016. “After March 2016, 190 projects have been given environmental clearances till date,” said another ministry official on condition of anonymity.

In the run up to 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said the government would simplify green clearances to boost industrial growth. The industry had repeatedly complained that delay in green clearances made several projects unviable. “A lot of steps have been taken for streamlining EC processes when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power. Terms of reference, which earlier used to take around 6-9 months, have been standardised. The EC system has been made completely online. Powers have been given to state governments for small infrastructure projects seeking ECs.

“Earlier, a lot of proposals for highway expansion used to come to the Centre. To ease the process, the ministry changed rules for clearances for highway expansion projects. Now, any expansion which is more than 40m in width and 100km length will come to the Centre for approval. Otherwise, they can take permission from state environmental impact assessment committee,” added the official.

Environment impact assessment (EIA) consists of four steps — screening, scoping, public consultation and appraisal.

In 2014, Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd (APSEZ), India’s largest port developer controlled by billionaire Gautam Adani, had secured environmental and coastal regulation zone clearance for its controversial SEZ in Mundra, Gujarat, from the ministry of environment and forests.

A Rs.3,813 crore project of the Karnataka State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corp. Ltd to build a multi-purpose all-weather port at Tadadi was given a go-ahead in December 2016. The Delhi-Jaipur Expressway had also got the environmental nod this financial year.

Recently, in December 2016, a meeting of the Expert Appraisal Committee for river valley and hydro-electric projects recommended a project for construction of a 77m high and 2,031m-long composite dam across Ken river near village Daudhan in Chhatarpur district in Madhya Pradesh.

Queries e-mailed to the environment ministry on 6 February remained unanswered.

Experts are, however, sceptical of the move.

“Project evaluation is more important in giving environmental clearances. The conditions they have mentioned in the report have been complied with and site verification has been done. The ministry needs to check whether the environmental management plan in the EIA report has been followed or not. It doesn’t matter whether the process has been fastened or not, what matters is the monitoring of these projects,” said Sujit Kumar Singh, senior programme manager (impact assessment) at Centre for Science and Environment.