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World's largest solar park may face environmental hurdle

by Saket S. | @saket_07 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 11 February 2014 10:45 GMT

A map of the proposed boundaries for installation of a nearly 20,000-acre solar generating facility near Sambhar Lake in India's Rajasthan state, taken from plans submitted to India's government. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Saket S.

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India’s plans for a 20,000-acre solar power plant in Rajasthan could put it on a path to a renewable future – but will the project’s footprint encroach on protected wetlands?

JAIPUR, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – India has announced plans to build the world’s biggest solar-power generating facility on a salt-producing plain in Rajasthan, but experts say the massive project may still face ecological hurdles.

The facility, to be located on 20,000 acres (30 square miles) of land owned by Rajasthan’s government and a salt-producing firm, would produce 4,000 megawatts of electricity over the next seven years, and cost $1.2 billion in the first phase. India today uses an average of 772,000 gigawatt hours of power annually.

A.N. Srivastava, director of the country’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, said in an interview the project should have a lifespan of 25 years, and would reduce the country’s carbon footprint by over 4 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. Currently 67 percent of India’s energy requirements are met by rapidly depleting coal deposits, he said, and “to offset this dependency, India needs a clean energy revolution”.

Backers say the project will sit on dried-up land no longer required for salt production.

“There is almost 30 square miles of barren land surrounding the (Sambhar Lake) site which could be well-utilised for green energy production,” R.K. Tandon, chairman and managing director of Hindustan Salts Limited, one of the partners in the solar plant, said in an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation. The project fits under India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change, which calls for greater use of renewable energy, and would be environmentally friendly, he added.


The project aims to cut prices for solar energy and close a huge gap between power production and power demand in rural areas as per capita consumption of power grows in India, from about 780 kilowatt hours per person in 2009-10 to more than 880 kilowatt hours per person in 2011-12, according to the country’s 12th five-year plan.

But the government has not yet announced the project’s boundaries, and environmental experts fear it may touch on Sambhar Lake wetlands protected under the international Ramsar Convention, and that it could also affect nearby villages and illegal settlements encroaching on the wetlands.

The company providing the land for the project controls 58,000 acres (90 square miles) in the area, and the catchment of Sambhar Lake covers 60 square miles, according to the Sambhar Master Plan prepared by the state government.

Sambhar Lake is one of the largest salt-producing areas in India, and has been used for salt production since the 1870s. The lake basin is spread at the confluence of three districts of Rajasthan – Jaipur, Nagaur and Ajmer – and is close to the fringes of the desert.

The lake depends on rainwater supplies, which have been declining in the area as a result of changing weather patterns and greater use of water by the growing town of Sambhar, with 24,000 people, and by close to 100 small illegal settlements in the catchment area.

Over the past several decades, large areas of land surrounding the lake have dried out and no longer flood regularly. This is the land the government now hopes to use to build the solar farm, Tandon said.

Sambhar Lake, an important habitat for birds, particularly flamingos, is among 25 wetlands of international importance in India.


India’s Wetlands Conservation and Management Rules 2010 prohibit the setting up of industries in flood areas or industrial activity likely to have an adverse impact on wetland ecosystems, according to a Ministry of Environment and Forests official. Such rules may drive the final footprint of the solar project.

Such a project would have to be approved by 12 members of the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority including seven officials from key ministries such as Environment and Forests, Water, and Agriculture, as well as five environmentalists or other leading experts, the official said.

Some experts also fear that the proposed 20,000-acre footprint of the project may need to be reduced to meet wetland rules, reducing the target for power generation. Under government policies, about 5,000 acres of land is required for each 1,000 megawatts of solar energy produced.

“It is likely that the solar power project may face a space crunch due to existing encroachments around the catchment area of the lake, hence reducing the area for the project site,” said Abhishek Goyal, a New Delhi-based energy consultant for solar energy companies in India.

The government is expected over the next few months to invite bids to carry out the project. Hindustan Salts Ltd. recently invited bids for detailed feasibility studies and analysis of the project, according to its website.

India plans to seek $500 million in loans for the project from the World Bank for the first 750 megawatt phase of the project, which would cost $1.2 billion, Minister of Renewable Energy Farooq Abdullah said in a statement.

In the coming months, the government is expected to sign agreements to set up similar solar facilities in Kharagoda (Gujarat), Kargil and Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir) under the country’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission, which aims to produce 20 gigawatts of solar power each year by 2022.

Sunny India receives solar energy each year equivalent to nearly 5,000 trillion kilowatt hours per year, experts say – more than the total energy consumption of the country today. So far, however, India has only about 2,000 megawatts of grid-connected solar.

A memorandum to establish the Sambhar Lake project was signed in late January by six Indian public-sector companies, the Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and the Ministry of Power.

Saket S. is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi and Rajasthan.

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