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Renewable energy commitments of India have been in focus in the various government policies. India has seen major investments in technology, research and development of various kinds of renewable energy. Tidal energy is one of the kinds of energy being intensively researched on and developed.

Tidal energy is a form of renewable energy sourced from the sea’s tidal currents. These tidal turbines are installed in shallow waters in the intertidal areas with two-way rotating turbines that harness power from the water currents during the high and low tides. There are several kinds of turbine designs that have been designed and used. Some of them are tidal streams, barrages and tidal lagoons. Despite various reports claiming the potential of tidal energy, there are very few tidal energy plants around the world.

The Rance dam and tidal power plant

The Rance dam and tidal power plant

Over 50 years old, the La Rance tidal power plant is the oldest tidal energy power plant. Inaugurated in November 1966 the installed capacity of the power plant is 240 MW using 24 turbines. Built across the estuary of the Rance River in Brittany, France, the power plant is the second largest tidal power plant in the world using the barrage technology. Tidal energy is predictable and produces energy at a steady rate unlike wind and solar energy. However, this power plant was built with an investment of over $100 million which achieved break-even only after 20 years of generating energy.

Tidal energy, India’s status

India has also been researching and has plans to develop tidal energy. However, it has been stuck in the research stage and implementation seems to be a far-reaching fruit. In August this year, the Standing Committee on Energy’s 20th report on tidal power development in India sheds a light on the status of the tidal energy research and development in India. The report was presented in the 17th Lok Sabha on August 05, 2021 and was also laid in the Rajya Sabha. As per the report, India has a potential of generating up to 12,455 MW of tidal energy with the highest potential of 10,425MW in Gujarat along the Gulf of Kutch and the Gulf of Khambat. The states with the least tidal energy potential are Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. These findings were based on a study titled, “Tidal & Wave Energy in India: Survey on the Potential & Proposition of a Roadmap” published in December 2014. The study was funded by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) and Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency Limited (IREDA).

A major concern that was raised by the committee in the report was regarding the cost of installation of the tidal energy. India had proposed to develop and install two projects having the capacity of 3.75 MW and 50 MW in Gangetic delta in the Sundarbans in West Bengal and Gulf of Kambhat and the Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat based on initial surveys. The report stated that the cost of the tidal power plant in West Bengal was Rs. 63.5 crore per MW. The cost of the pilot tidal energy project in the Gulf of Kutch at Mandvi was estimated at Rs. 15 crore per MW coming up to a total of 750 crore as estimated by M/s. Atlantis Resources Ltd. Both these projects were dropped by the respective Governments due to the high exorbitant cost and techno-economic non-viability.

Is India ready for tidal energy?

Throughout the Standing Committee report, it was repeatedly pointed out by the Standing Committee that there were no environmental impact studies undertaken by the Ministry. The committee had also noted that the barrage across an estuary can affect a wide area upstream as well as downstream. The major areas that were discussed as potential energy installations areas are the Gulf of Kutch, the Gulf of Khambat and the Gangetic delta in the Sundarbans. All these three areas have unique, robust and diverse ecosystems.

The Gulf of Kutch is a Marine National Park having several species of fishes, corals, marine flora and fauna and some protected large mammals like dugongs, porpoise and dolphins visit the gulf. The Gulf of Khambat is an important nesting and breeding ground and serves as a nursery for the marine flora. The Narmada river-creek is the only site along the western coast from where Hilsa fish travels upstream to its breeding ground, just like the salmon. The Sundarbans has been recognized as a world heritage site and has exceptional biodiversity.

The delta, gulf and creek regions also have an intricate relationship with the coastal communities dependent on them for their food and livelihoods. Any small change in the composition of the creek or alterations in the flows can severely affect the ecology primarily and thereby the food security of the coastal communities and livelihoods of the fisherfolks. The delta, gulf and creek areas are vastly used by the fisher communities for fishing using various traditional methods. Through these methods of fishing, they do not only support themselves financially, but also gather nutritious food for themselves. To understand all these intricacies and the impacts of development of tidal power plants along such thriving ecosystems require detailed studies with a scientific approach. However, from the report it is evident that there have been no efforts made to understand any of these impacts on the local communities.

The Standing Committee during their fourth meeting held on February 11, 2021 observed and suggested that “The Ministry informed the Committee that harnessing of tidal energy entails high cost, its technology is in developmental stage and currently it is not ready for commercial deployment. The Committee suggested that the Ministry may focus on R&D in this sector and explore the harness-able potential, strictly keeping in view economic viability and ecological sustainability.” In other words, the Government was advised to go back to the drawing board and study all the aspects of tidal energy.

Crucial elements in the process of decision-making are missing

Any development that is initiated without scientific evidence-based approach could lead to irreversible impacts on the delicate ecosystems. Climate change is REAL. The latest IPCC Report on Climate Change highlights that the coastal areas of India are witnessing seawater ingress due to sea level rise, erosion of the coast and so on. The western coast of India  has also been witnessing a rise in the cyclones. In such situations, the intertidal areas and the coastline need to be protected. India has committed to promote renewable energy and move away from polluting sources of energy. However, we are missing something very critical in the process.

The tidal energy projects that are to be built in the shallow waters of the intertidal areas could severely impact not only the ecosystems, but livelihoods as well. In India, the fishing activity is not only restricted to fishing by boats in deeper waters, but the intertidal areas also serve as great fishing grounds for the communities. The fisherfolks not only fish for their livelihood, but fishing is also an important source of their nutrition. It is shocking that the Standing Committee report did not mention the need for an analysis of the impacts of such projects on the coastal communities. Especially, when the coastal commons are in question. Principles of environmental jurisprudence such as Free, Prior and Informed consent, the principle of Intergenerational equity, the Principle of sustainable development and the Precautionary principle are key for decision-making when such sensitive habitats are considered for developmental projects.

Projects like tidal energy without sufficient studies and people’s participation can pose a great threat to the already threatened ecosystems and mangrove habitats. Mangroves are a crucial coastal feature. They not only serve as a critical habitat for marine flora and fauna, but also hold back the land from seawater ingress. The mudflats and salt marshes are also crucial. These ecosystems are sensitive, and a small alteration in the currents can trigger irreversible alterations in the coastal ecosystems. The rate at which species loss is happening is unprecedented in the history of mankind, and it is therefore crucial to protect habitats.

The renewable energy projects do not fall under the purview of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006, which means that there would be no environment impact assessment of the proposed projects nor any public hearings be held for them. And most of the renewable energy projects are also implemented through parastatals and special purpose vehicles that further fall out of the purview of local governments. This is a matter of serious concern. As a country, our policymaking needs to come to the roots to ensure equity, participation and have a scientific approach towards understanding the possible impacts of such large-scale renewable energy projects. The impact of poorly planned renewable projects and power lines have already caused considerable damage in ecologically-sensitive habitats of critically endangered species such as the Great Indian Bustard, the Asiatic Elephant and others. This is a wake-up call for us to go back to the drawing board and ensure all voices and concerns are addressed before undertaking such projects.

Picture courtesy: Daniel Jolivet/Flickr

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