The crisis engulfing global energy markets, while leaving governments scrambling to access sources of fossil energy in the short term, is accelerating the longer term shift to renewable energy. Wind and solar technologies are increasingly presented as the solution to all manner of social, political and economic problems beyond climate change.
The European Union is looking to renewables as the answer to rapidly rising gas prices. The climate change bill recently passed by the Biden Administration frames clean energy as tool of foreign policy. And in recent a speech marking 75 years of India’s independence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi placed renewable energy at the centre of his vision for a ‘developed India’.
But, to what extent are the promises of renewable energy being achieved, and shared? We, as part of a wider, comparative research project in three leading renewable energy regions in Australia, Germany and India, have sought to answer this question with a focus on the communities at the frontlines of the energy transition.
In a new podcast (produced by Jake Morcom), accompanied by a journal article published in Globalizations, and policy report, we explore the case of one India’s, and the world’s, biggest solar parks. As with our other cases, we find that the dominant model of renewable energy risks leaving communities, who are key to the success of the energy transition, behind.
The story, as told in the opening minutes of the podcast, begins one evening in November 2019 in a dusty village in Pavagada, a local area in the South Indian state of Karnataka. We were in Pavagada to talk with the local community about their experience of living in an around the 2050MW solar park that had begun operating earlier that year.
As we were talking with some local women outside a small house, more and more people joined in, and the discussion quickly became heated. Not wanting to be a disruptive presence, our research group offered to leave and pick up the conversation another time. But the women grabbed our hands, literally, and took us inside, saying ‘no, we want you to stay, we want to tell you our story’.
Though the house backed onto the boundary of the solar park, it was dimly lit by only a single lightbulb. Sitting down, drinking tea on the floor, we asked the women why talking about the solar park had brought up so much tension. The story they told was that rather than providing solutions to the problems faced by the community in Pavagada, the solar park had led to lost livelihoods, deepening inequalities, and missed opportunities.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Pavagada solar park is a flagship of India’s energy transition. Boasting as much zero carbon generating capacity as a large coal-fired power station, the solar park is spread across a sea of panels and grid infrastructure that stretches over 12,000 acres of land. Even more significant than the scale of the project is the model which brought it into being. The Pavagada model was developed as a game-changer for renewable energy development in emerging economies like India.
At the heart of the Pavagada model is an innovative land leasing system. The government authority created to oversee the project signed long-term leases with over one thousand local farmers to ‘bank’ the land needed for the solar park. The leases, which were voluntarily signed, were presented as a win-win outcome: farmers, who had been struggling financially with worsening drought, would gain a new source of income; solar developers would overcome land acquisition bottlenecks due to small-scale land holdings. All without the land grabbing controversies that plague large infrastructure projects in India.
The other element of the Pavagada model, paired with the land leasing, is the use of competitive bidding mechanisms for long-term power purchase agreements, or PPAs. The tenders for the PPAs were successfully used to attract Indian and international energy companies to invest in the project. Again, this was presented as a win-win scenario. The contracts guaranteed low risk returns for investors, while providing a cheap source of clean energy for state-owned electricity distributors, which have faced financial distress under the weight of rural energy subsidies.
However, as we found out speaking to women in the village, and through our wider field work in the area, the Pavagada model is not distributing the benefits of renewable energy to the local community equitably.
As is common in rural India, over half the approximately 10,000 people who live in the villages adjacent to the solar park are landless agricultural labourers. Because they do not own land, they receive no income from the leasing model. And with much local farming land now leased to the solar park, the landless labourers have lost their livelihoods. While some new solar jobs have been created for local people, mostly temporary employment in grass cutting, panel washing and security, they have not fully replaced lost livelihoods. Women, particularly those from lower caste and Adivasi backgrounds, have been most disadvantaged because they have lost the agricultural income that was a source of financial independence.
In our experience, both landless and landowning community members invariably expressed disillusionment with their experience of the energy transition. They pointed to broken promises of social and economic development, growing inequalities between larger landowners and the landless, and missed opportunities to involve the local community as partners in the project. These outcomes were predicted in meticulous detail by World Bank social and environmental impact assessments prior to project development, but their recommendations were mostly not acted on.
Large-scale renewable energy is essential for meeting climate goals, and in a place like Pavagada has the potential to change thousands of lives for the better. However, the potential of the Pavagada model to deliver on this promise has not been fulfilled. Instead, it has reproduced the globally dominant model for renewable energy development, which is primarily concerned with reducing costs and managing risks for investors and governments.
The case of Pavagada holds some important lessons for those looking to renewable energy to solve the multiple crises we face. In the necessary rush to scale-up renewables, it is easy to forget that solar and wind technologies are deeply embedded in the local communities in which they are installed. When those communities are sidelined, it can undermine livelihood and derail support for renewable energy.
Over the course of our research, it was clear that communities had thought deeply about what would be required to achieve better outcomes. Community members told us they wanted the Pavagada model to involve them as genuine partners, to facilitate revenue sharing, co-management of land across energy generation and agriculture, and more employment and training opportunities.
Alongside other lofty policy goals, delivering real and shared local benefits, from the landless women in Pavagada up, is an essential ingredient for the energy transition.
Header image: The Pavagada Solar Plant / Google Earth.