India’s on-shore wind energy sector is often touted as a success story. Now, the Indian government is looking to tap the enormous offshore wind energy potential. The latest move however, could threaten marine biodiversity along India’s coastline.

Last week, the National Institute of Wind Energy, an autonomous body under the Indian government’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, called for an “Expression of Interest” from domestic as well as international firms for developing the country’s first 1,000 megawatt commercial offshore wind farm.

The National Institute of Wind Energy is the nodal agency to carry out the necessary studies or surveys before final bidding and is also expected to be the single window for facilitating clearances required for development of offshore wind projects in the country.

The wind farm is proposed to be developed in the Gulf of Khambhat, an ecologically sensitive area off the coast of Gujarat. The proposed area is located 23-40 kilometres seaward-side from Pipavav port and the global Expression of Interest is intended to shortlist prospective developers. The interested firms have been asked to submit proposals by May 25. The site is also easily accessible from Jafrabad port.

In October 2015, the Indian government had notified the National Offshore Wind Energy Policy to harness the huge wind power potential along India’s over-7,500-km coastline. By the year 2022, India wants to install at least 5,000 MW of offshore wind energy generation capacity.

Representative picture of an offshore wind farm. India is looking to harness huge offshore wind power potential. Photo credit: Kim Hansen/Wikimedia Commons

Areas off the coasts of two big Indian states, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, have been identified for development of offshore wind power. As per initial estimates, Gujarat coastline alone has the potential to generate around 106,000 MW of offshore wind energy while Tamil Nadu has a potential of about 60,000 MW.

Renewable energy, mainly solar and wind power, is the mainstay of India’s massive clean energy programme under which it aims to achieve 175,000 MW of installed capacity of renewable power by 2022. Of those, 60,000 MW is planned from wind power alone. At present, India’s total installed wind power capacity is 32,957 MW.

With this move, the government’s target is to develop the offshore wind power sector in India and replicate the success of the on-shore wind power sector. The tariff for the on-shore wind power sector has already touched a record low of Rs 2.43 per kilowatt-hour, which is even cheaper than solar power.

“At a global level, it has been observed that offshore wind energy, while being better than onshore wind in terms of efficiency, is also becoming competitive and comparable in terms of tariffs,” reads a government statement. It also emphasises that the move would help India in attaining energy security and achievement of National Action Plan for Climate Change targets.

Is it a bad idea for the environment?

The Gulf of Khambhat in Gujarat is one of the important natural systems of the state and covers about 400-km-long coastline, which is about a quarter of the total coastline of the state. Several major rivers of Gujarat like Narmada, Tapi, Sabarmati and Mahi open in the gulf, draining down water and alluvium into it and the adjoining coastal areas. It has an extent of about 3,120 square km of mudflats.

According to a report of the Gujarat Ecology Commission, due to its “geographical positioning, physical and oceanographic characteristics, and large human population around”, the Gulf of Khambhat is vulnerable to various anthropogenic activities including rapid industrialisation and coastal infrastructure development projects such as ports and oil terminals, jeopardising both ecological as well as livelihood securities along this region.

Counted amongst the biodiversity rich eco-systems of India, the funnel-shaped Gulf of Khambhat is home to hundreds of species of plants, animals and birds. Not only has it played guest to several species of migratory birds over the years, but also is home to mangrove stretches. However, they have suffered serious degradation over last 20-30 years.

With such a sensitive habitat, a detailed and comprehensive environmental impact assessment of the offshore wind power project becomes critical.

According to experts, the primary environmental concerns related to offshore wind projects are high noise levels, risk of collisions for birds and effect on marine species.

“The project could threaten marine biodiversity, affect local ecology and impact birds. Such a project in an ecologically sensitive area should be taken only up after consulting with local public,” Mahesh Pandya of Paryavaran Mitra, an organisation working on environmental issues in Gujarat, told Mongabay-India.

Experts also question if renewable power projects, which aim to reduce carbon emissions, are green enough.

“Renewable energy is clean but is it really green? Both wind and solar require the use of minerals. Wind for example requires steel, concrete, fibre glass, copper, cast iron-and mining for both iron ore and sand is energy intensive and also destroys prime forests and wildlife habitats,” said Prerna Singh Bindra, former member of India’s National Board for Wildlife and author of The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis.

“Renewable energy projects are land-intensive, and we have wind and solar in prime wildlife areas – grasslands in Gujarat and Rajasthan, the Western Ghats and now rich marine areas – leading to destruction of ecosystems,” she explained.

Overall, the project would need clearances from at least 10 separate ministries including the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Before securing clearance from the environment ministry, the project would need an environmental impact assessment study to assess its impact on the environment and biodiversity.

It would also require coastal zone clearance from Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change as the area falls under India’s rules governing activities in the ecologically sensitive coastal areas. National Institute of Wind Energy has clarified that it will obtain the initial stage-one clearance for development of this project.

Interestingly, this is not the first time that a proposal that can disturb the ecologically sensitive area has been envisaged. For instance, the proposal to build ‘Kalpasar dam’, world’s largest freshwater reservoir in the sea, by constructing a 30-km long dam in Gulf of Khambhat has been pending for more than a decade. The project, which costs around Rs 500 to 600 billion, involves storage of more than 10,000 million cubic metre of surface water, which is 25% of the volume of the state’s average annual rainwater inflow.

Clean vs green

Offshore wind is attractive but the main constraint for its development in India has been that it can be difficult to build and maintain.

According to the Global Wind Energy Council, the global offshore cumulative wind capacity is 18,814 MW and of that, more than 75% alone is installed in the United Kingdom, Germany and China. The Indian market is also now poised to grow, but the question that experts are raising is around the impact of this growth and at what cost should it continue.

Clean energy experts believe offshore wind sector is still in a complicated phase and requires a proper environmental impact assessment.

Impact on birds is one of the major concerns against wind farms. Photo credit: Raju Kasambe

“Wind prices have come down in India and probably that is why Indian government is pushing for more wind power projects. There needs to be a balance with environment. Offshore wind energy projects can be taken to places that are not ecologically sensitive. It is complicated and the sector is still in the initial phase. Basically it is a catch-22 situation and offshore projects require a comprehensive EIA study to proceed,” said Rakesh Kamal, a consultant with The Climate Reality Project, an independent organisation working on climate change related issues.

Meanwhile, Bindra also emphasised that renewables must undergo both environment and social scrutiny and that “certain critical areas must be ‘no-go’”.

“The way forward is to decentralise decision making on renewables,” she said.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.