This massive solar park at Karnataka's Pavagada ups heat

Launched in 2018, this alternative energy facility was meant to be the answer to environmentally hazardous thermal and nuclear power energy sources.
The solar park facility in Pavagada in Tumakuru
The solar park facility in Pavagada in Tumakuru

PAVAGADA: It is a large sheet of glass that stretches as far as the eye can see. Acres and acres of black solar panels, spread across 12,800 acres to be precise, glimmer in the Sun, making the solar park at Pavagada taluk in Tumakuru district one of the biggest in Asia.

Launched in 2018, this alternative energy facility was meant to be the answer to environmentally hazardous thermal and nuclear power energy sources. But this ultra-modern, eco-friendly solution has brought misery to villagers nearby.

The New Indian Express visited the surrounding villages to understand how their lives have changed since the solar park came up about four-and-a-half years ago. The common complaint is the noticeable change in temperature. 

“Pavagada is hot, but the heat is even more unbearable now. We don’t know whether it is because of the solar park. But definitely, our nights have become warmer even during winters. Days are burning hot in summer,” said residents of the Dalit Colony at Vallur.

Vallur is one of the five villages -- Tirumani, Balasamudram, Kyatagancharulu and Rayacharulu -- where the Karnataka Solar Power Development Corporation Ltd (KSPDCL) leased land from farmers to set up Shakti Sthala, which was the biggest solar park in the world in 2018.

“Earlier, we used to sleep outside only during summer. But now we do it in all seasons,” said Narayanappa, a villager. KSPDCL was supposed to plant trees but nothing has been done, he added. The villagers complained that the temperature has gone up at least by 5 degrees Celsius (from around 32 degrees Celsius to 37 degrees Celsius). But researchers and scientists, who have visited the place, said the increase is marginal at around 0.5 to 1 degree Celsius in areas located close to the panels.

Srinivas Reddy, a former director of the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre and Senior Consultant at the Disaster Management Authority, said the authorities should install temperature sensor at 1, 3 and 5 km radius from the solar park site to gather better data. 

The Solar Park spreads across 12,800 acres at Pavagada in Tumakuru district.
It is said to be one of the largest photovoltaic solar parks in the world

‘Eco-implications of land-use change need to be studied’

Well-known environmentalist, soil scientist and former IFS officer AN Yellappa Reddy said the land which has now been covered by solar panels is next to the human habitat. “When the land has vegetation and the surface is green, water gets absorbed and oxygen flows naturally. Also, farming activity keeps the soil alive,” he added.

But with solar panels replacing vegetation, the area has become hotter. “The temperature will only increase further in coming years, making it impossible for villagers to live near solar panels. They may have to vacate their villages,” he warned.

He said that the lower albedo effect, which means more radiation from the sun getting absorbed by the earth, makes temperatures rise. Especially in Pavagada, which is known for its rocky hills, this effect is more apparent. If there is vegetation, even shrubs, the temperature goes down.

Other climate and soil experts suggested that the longterm impact of cutting off sunlight and rain from the land on which solar parks stand needs to be studied before more such parks are commissioned.

Prof John Quinton from Lancaster Environment Centre Soil Science told The New Indian Express, “There has been a large increase in solar parks around the world, which has led to a significant change in land use. There is a huge pressure, given the current increasing demand, on agricultural land to grow biofuels and to convert it into solar energy parks. The concern is that the land may not be able to cope with these changes, which need to be studied to understand their impact on soil and climate.”

Agreeing that the temperature is bound to increase to some extent because of the dark colour of solar panels, Prof Govindasamy Bala of the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, II Sc, said that ecological implications of land-use change caused by solar parks have not been studied properly. There is a need to compile observations for some more years and compare them with the data from previous years, he said.

Prof Rajegowda, an agrometeorologist and former registrar of the University of Agriculture Sciences, said that Pavagada receives low rainfall, but despite that farmers used to grow good quantities of groundnut, horse gram and green gram. There have been studies globally that show that the soil under the solar panels is cooler by 5.2 degrees Celsius as compared to patches exposed to the sun. This is likely to affect many important plant and soil processes, including productivity and decomposition, he said.

More importantly, the government has to think of an alternative source of livelihood for villagers, whose land has been taken away. “The government can hold orientation courses to help them put some value addition to crops grown in surrounding areas that will help them get jobs and income,” he suggested.

While India is racing to install solar farms to wean itself away from carbon-based energy, the industry is yet to develop technologies to tackle its own environmentally hazardous material, like toxic metals, oil, fibreglass and others.

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