Giant, visually impaired bird hinders India’s green goals
New Delhi: Pity for the great Indian bustard. The majestic and endangered bird is massive, making it slow to maneuver in flight. He has poor frontal vision and an unfortunate habit of scanning the land while flying over the flat grasslands of India’s western borders. This combination places it too often on a fatal collision course with power lines.
Too bad also, if you will, the fate of India’s renewable energy developers.
The large region that is home to the rare bird has long been a great location for wind and solar projects. In an effort to keep the Great Indian Bustard from flying over power lines, a Supreme Court order calls for transmission lines in much of the region to be underground. The companies say the directive could cost around $ 4 billion in additional spending and put nearly 20 gigawatts of awarded solar and wind projects at risk.
pitting industry against nature
Before taking a stand, however, be aware that the question is more nuanced than a simple confrontation between industry and nature. The effort to save the bustard carries risks for what is arguably an even bigger environmental cause: it could set back India’s climate goals, which are heavily dependent on the availability of wasteland like the domain of l bustard to install solar panels and wind turbines.
“The whole renewable energy industry, especially solar power, could shut down,” said Parag Sharma, managing director of O2 Power Pvt., A Temasek Holdings-backed developer building a solar project. of 780 megawatts in the city of Jaisalmer in western India. . “You won’t find land so easily elsewhere in the country. “
Other companies with plans in the region include Adani Green Energy, ReNew Power, and Acme Solar Holdings.
The April decision was the result of a petition filed in 2019 by MP Ranjitsinh Jhala, a former bureaucrat turned wildlife activist. The judges based their order on a report by the Wildlife Institute of India, a state agency, which said that “unless power line mortality is urgently mitigated, GIB extinction is certain.”
The court ruled that all low-voltage lines, including existing ones, must be taken underground. He formed a three-member committee to examine the feasibility of putting high voltage cables underground as well.
The problem, according to energy companies, is that the court went far beyond the prescription of the report. While the WII advised burying cables in an area where most birds live, the court also called for action in potential habitats, expanding the area of protection and increasing costs for businesses.
“We were taken by surprise,” said Subrahmanyam Pulipaka, CEO of the industry lobby National Solar Energy Federation of India. “We are discussing all options, including filing a petition for review in court, the committee’s approach to presenting our case, or both.”
Great Indian Bustards – the name means “slow bird” in Old French – are among the heaviest flying creatures on the planet. They are around 1 meter tall (3.3 feet), have a wingspan of around 2 meters, and weigh nearly 18 kilograms – more than twice the size of a peacock. The easily frightened ground-nesting bird previously roamed 11 states in India, but its home range has shrunk for the most part in Rajasthan.
A WII investigation covering 80 km of power lines across the state’s desert Thar region found four bustard deaths in a single year due to high-transmission wires, some connected to wind turbines . The study found that the birds died from the impact of the collision or electrocution.
Besides the transmission threads, a rapid conversion of grasslands for agricultural or industrial projects and a slow birth rate – bustards lay an egg every year or two – have also led to their depletion.
“These birds are on the verge of extinction and are now confined to a very small area. Saving this ecosystem should be as much a part of our climate goals as anything else, ”said Sreeja Chakraborty, an environmental lawyer based in Bengaluru. “If the industry is struggling to comply with the court order, it should move its projects to other locations. “
Since the decision, power companies and government and state officials have struggled to find a solution for businesses and birds. At a meeting in early May, attendees discussed the technical difficulties of undergrounding high-voltage lines, the financial implications and even the environmental risks of underground wiring, according to documents seen by Bloomberg.
Taking underground lines can inflate project costs and electricity prices by as much as 20% and lead lenders to finance the additional expenses, estimated at around 300 billion rupees ($ 4 billion), could be a challenge due to regulatory delays, according to the Solar Pressure Group. Pulipaka.
“This means that developers will have to invest their own funds and then run around for years to get paid back,” he said.
India, the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, plans to increase its renewable energy capacity fivefold to 450 gigawatts by the end of this decade. Solar and wind power, which together account for around 90% of the country’s renewable energy capacity, are expected to make up most of the new installations.
The court, in its decision, recognized the need to balance sustainable development for humans against the rights of other creatures. As it sought to strike a balance between the two parties, the court gave more weight to heavy and visually impaired bustards.
“Regardless of the cost factor, the priority will be to save the nearly extinct birds,” the two-judge roster said.