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The Hidden Impacts Of Solar India

Updated: October 16, 2010 5:36 pm

The National Solar Mission envisages a solar generation capacity of 20 GW in India by 2022, and claims zero environmental impact. But serious environmental risks do exist in the manufacture of solar photovoltaic and solar thermal cells, and the establishment of solar manufacturing plants, says Shawahiq Siddiqui

India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), launched on June 30, 2008, outlines the country’s existing and future policies and programmes addressing climate mitigation and adaptation. Among the identified eight core national missions, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM)—brandnamed Solar India—is envisaged as capable of substantially reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions without compromising the country’s high economic growth rate.

                With the objective of emerging as a global leader in solar energy by increasing the solar generation capacity to 20 GW by 2022, the National Solar Mission sets out an ambitious target of harnessing around 5,000 trillion kWh of solar energy in a phased manner through the use of appropriate technology and by developing substantial solar manufacturing capacity within the country.

                The JNNSM identifies three important phases of solar energy development. Phase I (2009-2012) aims at producing a solar generation capacity of 1,000-1,500 MW. Phase-II (2012-2017) targets include a production capacity of 6,000-7,000 MW; Phase III will boost capacity to 20,000 MW.

                The first phase envisions a quantum leap and is considered the most important phase as it aims to achieve various objectives including the rapid scaling-up of domestic solar equipment manufacturing, consolidation and expansion of ongoing projects for various applications and promotion of local manufacturing capacity, and establishment of solar technology parks or solar ultra mega power plants (UMPP). More importantly, mandatory objectives to be implemented in Phase I of the Mission include the deployment of solar rooftops (panels) in all government buildings, public sector undertakings, commercial and industrial establishments; installation of a solar generation facility at all thermal power plants; and use of vacant land in existing power plants for the installation of solar panels. There is also a proposal for mandatory installation of solar water heating systems in all privately-owned buildings whose minimum plot area is 500 sq mt. The total area to be covered with solar panels is 40 million sq mt, excluding the land required to set-up solar manufacturing units to scale up domestic manufacture of equipment in the country. As regards the environmental aspect, the Mission envisages “zero” environmental impact of solar energy development in the country.

“Zero” environmental impact?

It’s true that harnessing energy from the sun has no environmental impact, and that no environmentally harmful end products are produced from the generation of electricity or heat through solar panels. Indeed, the environmental benefits in terms of CO2 emissions reduction through the deployment of solar power generating units can be measured as far as calculations go. But the JNNSM ignores issues related to land requirement for solar installations, the environmental impacts of manufacturing solar photovoltaic and solar thermal cells, and the establishment of solar manufacturing plants (Phase I target: 2009-2012). These ought to have been equally considered and may have serious environmental ramifications due to the involvement of hazardous waste and processes in the manufacture of solar equipment and cells. The long-term implications of such manufacture, and the related environmental hazards could pose a serious threat to future environmental and ecological safety. The legal preparedness for such future needs should be assessed before the Mission is implemented.

A few obvious and pertinent concerns are:

Land and equity issues

Solar power is an extremely land-intensive electricity generation option, as 5 to 10 acres of land are needed to generate 1 MW of electricity (5-10 acres/MW). According to the JNNSM, it is estimated that 40 million sq mt are required for 20 GW of installed power. There are enough examples in the country where developers have acquired more land than is required for industrial purposes, and state governments have been more than happy to allocate huge areas of government land for SEZs, shopping malls and industrial zones. We already face an acute land shortage; we must re-visit land requirements under the JNNSM. Further, such huge requirement calls for a comprehensive land use plan, which simply does not exist at present. Neither are there any standards in place for land acquisition for solar manufacturing plants and power stations. Guidelines must be framed to prevent excessive land acquisition by project developers. Mandatory land leasing for utility power scale plants is an option for providing an equitable solution to land-owners. We must put in place a programmatic land use plan for all solar projects and manufacturing units.

Pressure on water resources, especially in arid areas

Solar thermal technology, successful in areas with high solar radiation, requires large volumes of water to cool down steam. Much like conventional power plants, concentrated solar power plants most commonly use the Rankine steam cycle, which requires water to cool the steam used to power the electric turbine. These plants therefore must choose sites that are close to water sources or enjoy abundant water supply. In India, sun-rich areas like Rajasthan or Gujarat (or the cold desert of Ladakh) are already water-scarce. There is indeed an apparent conflict between solar resource mapping and water availability in arid areas.

                The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, the nodal ministry for carrying out the JNNSM, has so far not looked into the environmental aspect of sustainable water use, including water scarcity and the installation of solar thermal plants in desert areas. An alternative site for CSP plants could be coastal regions, or areas close to rivers. But their impact on coastal, delta or riverbank land and their ecosystems must not be overlooked; a thorough environmental impact assessment must be carried out.

                Currently, there are no norms for water use at solar thermal power plants. Normative water use standards for solar power plants have to be formulated. Solar parks must be developed in high solar resource locations with enough water available.

                Water is also required for the washing of solar panels as dust does not allow the sun’s rays to be trapped effectively, leading to a reduction in the heat-to-electricity rate.



Solar panels are gaining more recognition as key ingredients to produce eco-friendly and renewable source of energy. With growing need for more energy, there will be in future, a plethora of solar panels all over the world. Now this has become a source of eco-conservative concern, according to Mr Bruce Robertson, Research Associate, from Kellogg Biological Station, Michigan State University.

Threat to biodiversity:

Mr Robertson sounded a warning about a possible threat to biodiversity. He noted that the shining dark surfaces of the solar cells, which reflect light, resemble water surfaces resulting aquatic insects like mayflies depositing their eggs on the solar panels. The solar panels are posing a false habitat hazard to more than 300 species of insect. This leads to a reproductive failure which may have far-reaching cascading adverse effects to the food chain. The insects fall a prey to predators. This data was discovered from a research held at Hungary.

Mistaken surface:

After their research at Hungary, Mr Robertson and his colleagues published an online article in ‘Conservation Biology’. Reflected sunlight from expanses of dark surfaces that are shiny like glass-clad buildings, even vehicles, solar panels of all sizes, becomes a worrisome new source for polarized light pollution. This is what causes the caddis flies and other aquatic insects to mistake shining surface to be water surface to lay their eggs.

Warning off:

Mr Robertson estimated that white marking the solar cells may reduce this threat to a great extent. He calculated that the efficiency of solar cells is not too greatly affected by the white grids. While humans may recognize reflected sunlight as glare, the group discovered that the aquatic insects can be warned off by fixing white-color grids and other methods to break up the polarized reflection. Non-polarizing white-grid use is a new approach for habitat fragmentation, used beneficially here.


Threat to fragile desert ecosystems

Birds are affected by the rays of focused sunlight produced at concentrated solar power plants, particularly “power-tower” plants. At solar PV plants, the shiny surfaces of solar panels, which resemble water surfaces, have in some cases resulted in aquatic insects like mayflies depositing their eggs on the panels. This could pose a threat to over 300 species of insects. Depending on where the plant is located, this phenomenon could have a cascading effect on local foodchains and the fitness of local insect species (see: Discovery News, ‘Solar Panels Lure, Kill Insects’, June 7, 2010, available at animals/solar-panels-insects.html). The planning of any large-scale desert power facility must therefore include a conservation plan that will anticipate and mitigate the damage done to plant and animal species in the area, based on the technology employed and siting of the plant.

Use of hazardous chemicals to manufacture solar cells or modules

The JNNSM proposes to use existing SPV technologies (based on silicon compounds) and thin film technology. These technologies (involving the manufacture of solar cells using polycrystalline silicon cells and wafers) use certain hazardous chemicals like silicon compounds, cadmium compounds, germane and polyvinyl fluoride (Tedlar). Other substances that are used in the manufacture of solar cells, modules and panels include argon, flame retardants, selenide gas, ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA), and silane. Use of these chemicals in large quantities results in the production of hazardous substances as effluents, and the release of toxic gases. Given the scale at which solar manufacturing is anticipated in India there is going be a huge release of hazardous chemicals and gaseous substances into the environment. Needless to say, the regulators have not thought of this.

Health and occupational safety of workers at solar manufacturing units

Workers at solar manufacturing units will be exposed to these hazardous substances and toxic gases. The raw material used in solar manufacturing poses a number of health risks such as the development of silicosis due to use and handling of silicon in large quantities. Cadmium used in the manufacture of solar modules can cause cancer. Fumes emitted during the process can accelerate respiratory and skin disorders. In the event of an accident, chemicals stored in the SPV unit can cause immeasurable damage to both health and the environment.

Existing regulatory framework

Based on its understanding of the environmental impact of solar energy development in India, the Mission document doesn’t see any role for regulatory bodies enforcing environmental norms in the country. Consequently, a number of regulatory instruments that could be used for controlled and sustainable expansion of solar industrial development in India have been ignored, the most crucial being the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2009 that does not include the solar industry as an activity requiring environmental clearance. Currently, EIA can be conveniently sidestepped by developers as, under the notification, activities below a certain financial limit and size do not require environmental impact assessment. It is also unclear whether CSP projects will be included in thermal power plants under Activity 1(d) of the EIA Notification, 2009. Other important legal instruments that can be used are the Environment Protection Act, 1986, Hazardous Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989, and the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989 that provide a regulatory mechanism for the use of toxic chemicals in India. Schedule I (Part II) of HCR provides a comprehensive list of chemicals that are dangerous or toxic above a certain concentration, as mentioned in the schedule. A further list of hazardous and toxic chemicals (Schedule I, II and III) includes a number of chemicals used in the manufacture of solar PV equipment. HCR does not, however, include a number of notable toxic and hazardous chemicals that are being used in present solar technologies, including (but not limited to) argon, flame retardants, cadmium compounds, selenide gas, EVA, germane, polyvinyl fluoride (Tedlar), silane, and silicon compounds. These chemicals, when released into the environment (either as emissions or discharge as effluents into the ground or water), have a detrimental effect on humans and biota.

                The impact of solar thermal plants on coastal ecologies also needs to be regulated through appropriate safeguards. Under the CRZ Notification, 1991, thermal power plants are permitted {3 (2) (iii) of the CRZ; the new pre-draft CRZ notification of 2010 also permits utilities requiring foreshore facilities}. It is not clear, however, whether solar thermal plants are included under thermal power plants, mentioned as a permissible activity in the CRZ law. Since facilities to generate power from non-conventional energy sources are allowed in CRZ II, III and IV, it is important that these facilities are thoroughly reviewed, not just for their water resource impact but also for their land use and impact on the coastal ecology. It is also unclear whether existing SEZs that are in CRZ I areas will be permitted to manufacture solar panels.

Need for centralised environmental planning

In order to proceed with the JNNSM in an environmentally sustainable manner we must come up with a proper land use plan for solar developers. Scarce water resources must be used sustainably, and regulations issued on the normative use of water. For this, states must take effective steps to set guidelines or water use standards for such units. The Chemical Rules, Hazardous Waste Rules, EIA Notification, CRZ Notification, factory rules in states, and other relevant legislation must be revised to include chemicals, substances and activities that are hazardous and likely to impact humans and the environment. Without these measures there is every possibility that unmindful solar energy development will lead to industrial expansion and a further deterioration of our environment. Centralised environmental planning is vital for sustainable solar energy development in the country.

The way forward

In order to implement the National Solar Mission in an environmentally harmonious way, the nodal ministry should consider the following:

                As solar power is one of the most land-intensive electricity generation options (5-10 acres/MW), the central government and state governments should frame a programmatic land use plan for all solar projects.

                As solar thermal power plants have to be located in desert and arid areas, due to their maximum sun potential, normative water use standards must be laid down. Solar parks should be developed in high-solar-resource locations where there is adequate water available.

                The manufacture, storage and import of hazardous chemical rules, 1989 do not include many notable toxic and hazardous chemicals that are being used in present solar technologies, including (but not limited to) argon, flame retardants, cadmium compounds, selenide gas, ethyl vinyl acetate, germane, polyvinyl fluoride (Tedlar), silane, and silicon compounds. These chemicals, when released into the environment (either as emissions or discharge as effluents into the ground or water), have a detrimental effect on humans and biota. There is a need to revise the rules to include toxic substances that are used in solar manufacturing units.

                Solar panels are a potential threat to birds, mayflies and aquatic insects. At concentrated solar power plants, birds are fooled by the rays of focused sunlight produced, resembling water surfaces, particularly in “power tower” plants. Planning of any large-scale desert power facility must include a conservation plan that will anticipate and mitigate damage done to any plant or animal species in the area, based on the technology employed and the plant’s siting.

                There is a need to revise the legal framework on health and occupational safety of workers at such plants.

                Environment impact assessments should be mandatory for all solar power plants.




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