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Killing two birds with one stone

Increased solar energy can help combat land degradation

Mohammed Salman Rahman | June 05, 2024 00:00:00

The Bangladesh Government has set ambitious targets to ramp up renewable energy integration in Bangladesh. Bangladesh intends to reduce carbon emissions by 6.73 per cent as a signatory to the Paris Agreement and in accordance with its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). With international cooperation, this goal might rise to 15.12 per cent by 2030. The nation's 2021-2025 Five Year Plan (FYP) includes these goals. We already have an installed capacity of 1,076 MW of solar power as of June, 2024 (including distributed solar power). But, according to the Power Division, there are solar power projects involving almost 10,000 MW currently in the pipeline, in various stages of development.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced in COP26 that Bangladesh would target 40 per cent of installed capacity from clean energy sources by 2041, which would be around 23,500 MW of power. Bangladesh needs it both in terms of a diversified energy mix and to keep up with our own climate commitments. I want to discuss more on how solar power can actually help us combat land degradation, another burning issue in Bangladesh.

Based on data from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the nation's net arable land area decreased from 19.09 million acres in 2008 to 18.68 million acres in 2019. Bangladesh's agricultural land has been declining annually at a rate of 0.19 per cent or 0.008 million hectares. With an estimated population gain of 0.20 million people each year, if not addressed quickly, it would become a big headache very soon. Under the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) adopted during COP12, Bangladesh set targets to achieve 'Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN)', a global mechanism to combat land degradation by 2030.

According to the land use policy for solar projects in Bangladesh, a project won't be approved unless it's non-agricultural land. That basically means the land should be Fallen, Fallow and Wasteland. There is usually land at most risk of degradation and desertification due to not having vegetation and other compacting aspects. Here, mandatory regulations of multi-purpose land use for solar projects can combat land quality degradation, and even contribute to LDN goals.

The multipurpose use of land for solar energy generation can be an effective strategy to combat desertification in several ways:

1. Land restoration: Establishing solar panels on degraded or desertified lands can help restore and revitalise the soil. The process of installing solar panels often involves site preparation, which can include activities such as soil stabilisation, erosion control measures, and revegetation efforts. These practices can help prevent further land degradation and desertification.

2. Water Retention: Utilising the water needed to clean the panels is another benefit of adopting solar technology. Regular cleaning is necessary to keep solar panels operating efficiently. Water is used in this cleaning procedure to rinse the panels. The land beneath the panels can be irrigated by gathering and using this water. In regions with low rainfall, this water can be an important source for plant development. The usage of solar panels can also lessen the need for fossil fuels, which can have a positive impact on the environment.

3. Microclimate improvement: Solar panels can create a localised cooling effect by reflecting a portion of the incoming solar radiation, reducing surface temperatures. This can potentially improve soil moisture retention and create more favourable conditions for vegetation growth, thereby combating desertification. Both agrivoltaics and aquavoltaics are possible.

4. Income diversification: The establishment of solar panels can provide an alternative source of income for local communities, reducing their reliance on unsustainable land-use practices that contribute to desertification, such as overgrazing or unsustainable agricultural practices. Goats and lambs, for example, can graze in the space beneath the panels, generating revenue for nearby farmers. Furthermore, the grass that grows beneath the panels may enhance the quality of the soil, resulting in higher crop yields.

5. Synergies with other sustainable practices: Solar projects can be integrated with other sustainable land management practices, such as agroforestry, sustainable grazing, or soil conservation techniques. This integrated approach can further enhance the positive impact on combating desertification while generating renewable energy.

The above concepts are not without global examples. The semi-arid Sahel region of Africa, which stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, is under threat from ongoing land degradation as a result of growing population pressure on few resources. There, think tanks, global donors and regional banks like AFDB have implemented pilot solar projects with vegetation underneath. The success of the pilot projects has led to AFDB drawing up a 10 GW expansion plan on multi-use solar projects across Africa. Sheep grazing under solar panels has been a practice in Britain and Australia, where the shading even helps animals from heat stroke. In China, growing vegetables under solar panels is very common. The Chinese have also successfully experimented with solar fisheries. In short, there are cases from which Bangladesh can learn, and strive to emulate.

However, it is important to note that the implementation of solar projects should be carefully planned and executed, considering site-specific conditions, environmental impact assessment, and the involvement of local communities. Proper measures should be taken to minimise any potential negative impacts, such as habitat fragmentation or disruption of existing ecosystems. Power Division has already conducted a feasibility study for multipurpose use of land for renewable energy projects, and the recommendations may soon find its way in policy directives. Of course, the private sector player may always see the economics, how it increases the cost of a project and the cost of maintenance. But effective mechanisms under the policies and guidelines, as well as the incentive structure may compel the solar power project developers to plan for multipurpose use of land.

Rarely we see synergistic opportunities as such which heals our world and provides sustainability, and this is high time for our policymakers and renewable energy developers to come together to make the gains on both end.

Mohammed Salman Rahman is a Partner and Director at Inspira Advisory and Consulting Limited, a Dhaka-based boutique consulting firm. He leads the Energy, Climate and Sustainability practice at Inspira.

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