Solar projects that generate 'green' power, and also support farming and grazing

Agro-photovoltaic projects are being offered as a solution to the growing resistance against solar energy projects that require large tracts of land and often lead to conflicts with the local communities. These projects allow traditional livelihoods, such as grazing, and generation of electricity, to co-exist on the same piece of land.

Ravleen KaurRavleen Kaur   8 Sep 2022 7:39 AM GMT

Solar projects that generate green power, and also support farming and grazing

This 7 MW solar plant is an agro-photovoltaic project that integrates solar power generation with farming and grazing activities. All photos: By arrangement

Ten years ago, when India's first solar park came up in Gujarat's Charanka village, more than 2,000 hectares of agricultural and pastoral land was acquired from the local farmers. The Maldhari (pastoral) families of the area also used the land to graze their sheep and goats.

But, after the setting up of the 730 MW (mega watt) solar park, many of the pastoral families were forced to sell off their livestock because of lack of pasture land.

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"Some of the animals perished and some were sold off," Lilabhai Rabari, a resident of Charanka village in Patan district, who owned 300 sheep till five years ago, but is now left with only 50, told Gaon Connection. Of the 160 Maldhari families in the village, only 10 own sheep now, he said.

In the neighbouring state of Rajasthan, villagers have been protesting against 'green' energy projects that threaten to wipe off ancient 'orans' (sacred groves) in Jaisalmer.

Also Read: 'Green' energy projects threaten to wipe off ancient 'orans' in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

In an agro-photovoltaic plant, crops are grown under the solar panels and in the space in between rows of panels.

In sharp contrast, last year in 2021, a 7 MW solar plant was commissioned at Degaon village (Sindkheda block) in Dhule district of Maharashtra, which has been welcomed by the local farmers and more so by the pastoral community.

The solar power plant has been set up by Gro Solar Energy Pvt Ltd and is meant purely for the farmers' agriculture pumps and their domestic use in the surrounding six villages.

This 7 MW solar plant is an agro-photovoltaic project, one of the largest such privately operated plants in the country, that integrates solar power generation with farming and grazing activities.

Pandurang Lakha, who belongs to the pastoral Dhangar community and has 300 sheep, frequently brings his sheep to graze at the Gro solar project. "The grass here is better than before when there was no solar plant," he told Gaon Connection. Lakha said that the water that is used to wash the solar panels has seeped into the ground and made it greener.

Agro-photovoltaic projects are being offered as a solution to the growing resistance against solar energy projects that require large tracts of land and often lead to conflicts with the local communities. According to a study conducted in 2021, there were 13 such projects in all in the country with a combined capacity of 48 MW.

"In an agro-photovoltaic project, traditional livelihoods, such as grazing and generation of electricity, can co-exist on the same piece of land. Agro-photovoltaics, in order to succeed, need the farmers and the renewable energy developers to join hands. This may seem difficult, but it's important for securing livelihoods that depend on land," Vishwajeet Poojary, senior programme associate with the nonprofit World Resources Institute-India, told Gaon Connection.

Also Read: Solar and wind energy projects in India need an impact assessment framework

The good thing with sheep is they do not try to climb the panels like goats or cattle that can often break the panels with their weight.

Double benefits of agro-photovoltaic projects

The Indian government plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2070 and has set a target of 500 GW (giga watt) renewable energy by 2030. Of this 280 GW target is for solar power.

With the current focus on increasing the production of renewable energy, conflicts are brewing over rights of the local communities and power generation through 'green' energy.

As per a 2022 research paper, An artificial intelligence dataset for solar energy locations in India, published in the journal Nature, over 74 per cent of solar installations in India are built on land that could create potential biodiversity and food security conflicts (67.6 per cent of agricultural land and 6.99 per cent of natural habitat).

Each megawatt of solar power requires up to five acres, and that of wind power requires 2.5 acres of land.

Agrovoltaics and solar grazing, which basically means dual use of land for farming/ grazing and solar power, are coming up as solutions to address this conflict.

In an agro-photovoltaic plant, crops are grown under the solar panels and in the space in between rows of panels. The water for cleaning the panels is put to dual use for irrigating the crops below.

For successful farming under the panels, a few design changes are required. For instance, increasing the height of the structure on which solar panels are mounted ensures that the shade from them does not affect plant growth. It also facilitates movement of agricultural machinery under the panels.

Electric and data transmission wires also have to be buried deep in the ground so that ploughing does not affect them. On the other hand, crop choice has to be based on factors like shade-tolerance and height of the plant.

Also Read: Migratory birds take the early flight into Rajasthan; but many of them crash into overhead power lines

One of the limitation of this set up is that the mounts need to be higher to prevent the shadow effect on plants. But the height makes them susceptible to damage by high-speed winds.

Pilot project in Anand, Gujarat

Until three years ago, 33-year-old Mahendra Parmar, who owned two bigha (0.79 acres) of land, struggled to eke out a living to support his 16-member family. "Farming was never enough. We took up dairying and daily wage labour work too," the farmer from Amrol in Anand district of Gujarat, told Gaon Connection.

But things changed for the better when the one MW agro-photovoltaic pilot project of Gujarat Industries Power Company Limited (GIPCL) came up in his village. The project had a subsidy from the state government and assistance from the Anand Agricultural University.

The 33-year-old farmer has been hired by the GIPCL to look after the agriculture part of the one MW agro-photovoltaic pilot project in his village.

"This land was lying fallow. But now, we are putting in dung and fertiliser to revitalise it," Parmar said. Farm labourers have been hired to work on the GIPCL farm, he added.

"The crop yield is not as much as it can be in an open field under the sun, but it is not a loss-making proposition either. In fact, in the warmer months, the shade from the solar panels supports the plants. I take home fodder for my cattle too," Parmar pointed out.

Also Read: Solar pumpsets gain some popularity amongst Rajasthan farmers but access to credit impeding PM Kusum scheme across India

On being contacted, P S Goyal, general manager (RE - O&M) at GIPCL told Gaon Connection, "We grow 15 crops including wheat, green gram, maize, okra, turmeric and sorghum in the 2.1 ha area under the project. Eighty per cent of the crop grows in the shade of the panels and the rest in the space between the panels." A single water pumping and distribution network has been designed for washing panels as well as for drip irrigation of crops, he added.

The power generated from the one MW pilot project is supplied via an 11 kilovolt (kV) line to nearby villages and irrigation pumps in farms. This decreases the transmission costs in comparison to power supply from far-off grids, the official said.

Electricity from power plants is usually released via high voltage lines of above 200 kV and then stepped down to 11 kV lines when it finally reaches individual houses. The cost involved is called transmission and distribution cost.

The water for cleaning the panels is put to dual use for irrigating the crops below.

When photosynthesis and photovoltaic go hand in hand

"If we look at monetary profits, photovoltaics will always win because it is more efficient (15 per cent) than photosynthesis (3 per cent) in converting solar energy. But we need food too, so it is only beneficial to integrate both power generation and food production," Priyabrata Santra, who conducted the country's first pilot on agro-photovoltaic at the Central Arid Zone Research Institute, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, told Gaon Connection. "It is all about synthesis between photosynthesis and photovoltaic, both of which require sun and water," he pointed out.

The 105 kilowatt peak agro-photovoltaic pilot plant at Santra's Jodhpur institute, has rainwater harvesting, and that is being used for cultivation of moong, moth, cluster beans and aloe vera. "We found that crops that are low in height, require less water and are shade tolerant, do well under solar panels in arid conditions," Santra said.

According to him, tall crops like bajra (pearl millet) can't be grown near ground-mounted solar panels as they interfere with the light falling on panels. "In dry areas where dust covers the panels (thus decreasing power production), vegetation underneath can help in trapping the sand," said Santra.

Companies like the National Thermal Power Corporation have consulted the Central Arid Zone Research Institute on the possibility of growing plants in their solar farms to deal with the problem of sand covering the panels, he said.

Also Read: Kachchh villagers on vigil to save Sangnara forest from a windmill project

The ideal temperature for solar power production is 24-25 degrees Celsius, therefore vegetation under the panels also regulates the ambient temperature of the plant area.

"Engineers from Panasonic [Panasonic Life Solutions India] who have installed solar modules at our plant in Dhule tell me that power production has increased after we planted 2,000 henna saplings at the boundary of the plant," said Gulabsingh Girase, director of Gro Solar Energy Pvt Ltd, who was earlier with the Maharashtra State Power Generation Company Limited. He took voluntary retirement to pursue his agro-photovoltaic dream on his ancestral land in Dhule where the 7 MW agro-photovoltaic plant was commissioned last June.

The 52-acre plant, installed under state's Saur Krishi Vahini Yojana provides electricity to six villages, Girase said. "We are working hard to make it agriculturally viable too. There are no profits today but two years down the line, we intend to use at least 35 acres of this land for intensive farming," he told Gaon Connection.

While now he has geranium and henna growing there, Girase plans to introduce dwarf varieties of coconut, mango, onion and garlic later. If agriculture is not profitable, Girase plans to open up the entire plant for grazing.

"We have about 5,000 sheep in nearby villages. Letting them graze is my indirect corporate social responsibility scheme. The good thing with sheep is they are docile and do not try to climb the panels like goats or cattle that can often break the panels with their weight," he said.

"Sheep are also good weeding agents. They do not feed on geranium but on all other grasses, which is a win-win situation for us as well as pastoralists," Girase added.

Also Read: Four months a year, solar pumps for irrigation remain idle in drought-hit parts of Maharashtra

This arrangement facilitates movement of agricultural machinery under the panels.

Initial hiccups

However, large companies are slow to venture into agro-photovoltaics. A January 2021 report by the National Solar Energy Federation of India has put the total agro-photovoltaics capacity in the country at just 48 MW.

"APV [agro-photovoltaics] increases the cost of installation. The mounts need to be higher to prevent the shadow effect on plants and allow for unhindered movement of farm machinery. The height also makes it difficult to clean them and makes them susceptible to damage by high-speed winds," PR Sheshagiri Rao, agricultural scientist-turned farmer who lives in Pavagada in Karnataka's Tumkur district, told Gaon Connection.

Installing a solar plant is an expensive affair. "The cost of installing a one megawatt solar plant is 3.5 crore rupees, it goes up by 20 per cent if we add the mounting structure and other agri infrastructure," Vivek Saraf, CEO and founder of Gurgaon-based SunSeed APV, a start-up that develops agro-photovoltaic solutions, pointed out.

Lack of data on crop yields under the shade of panels is another limitation. "Trials by agricultural universities have not produced adequate data yet. For a developer to take up APV, both solar and agriculture should compliment each other in terms of techno-economic returns," Saraf, who installed a shade net – on the lines of a polyhouse – at his 1.4 MW agro-photovoltaic plant at Parbhani in Maharashtra, told Gaon Connection.

His company has also set-up high end instruments like photosynthesis metres to gather intelligence about plant yield under different shade conditions.

However, mistrust and lack of coordination between farmers and solar developers is the biggest socio-cultural factor behind the slow uptake of agro-photovoltaic, say sector experts.

There is no clear policy on bringing the farmer and solar companies together yet, but according to sources, the Union ministry of new and renewable energy (MNRE) is working on one. "A policy on APV requires the coordination of many departments – agriculture, MNRE, and Science and Technology. Also, land use definitions have to be clear so that farmers do not feel threatened about losing their land," said Subrahmanyam Pulipaka, CEO of the National Solar Energy Federation of India.

Decentralised agro-photovoltaic projects

Agricultural scientists and solar developers both agree that financial support from the government would be a crucial factor for agro-photovoltaics to come up.

"We are able to do the pilot because the government is buying power from us at an escalated cost of Rs 3.20 per kV. For a farmer or private entity to take it up, he should get at least Rs 3.50 per kV to run it sustainably," said PS Goel of Gujarat Industries Power Company Limited.

Mega solar parks like the proposed 30,000 MW park in Kachchh will have heavy evacuation infrastructure to transfer power over thousands of kilometres, which would mean a transmission cost itself of Rs 3 per kV (apart from the cost of production), so why can't the small decentralised agro-photovoltaics projects be subsidised, he asked.

According to Girase's estimate, there are 40,000 substations connected to rural India with a capacity of 200 GW. "If the government subsidises APVs, the entire countryside's electricity requirement can be met by a renewable source of energy, without any conflict over land whatsoever," he said.

This story was produced with research support from Earth Journalism Network's renewable energy workshop held at Kanyakumari in July 2022.

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