Sharavathi project: Killing a pristine forest for ‘questionable’ power

Environmentalists say it will destroy 360 acres forest and consume 24% more energy than it will generate

Sharavathi-valley
The Sharavathi Valley sanctuary is one of the largest protected areas of tropical evergreen forest in the fragile Western Ghats | Photo: Karnataka.com

The Karnataka Power Corporation Limited (KPCL) is set to begin a geotechnical survey inside the Sharavathi lion-tailed macaque (LTM) wildlife sanctuary, to set up a 2,000 MW pumped storage power plant that is expected to destroy a pristine forest and whose benefits are questionable.

The Karnataka State Board for Wildlife cleared the survey in September 2019. This was ratified recently by Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar in a virtual meeting of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL).

According to environmentalists, the power plant project will destroy about 360 acres of a pristine forest at a time when the forest and tree cover in Karnataka is only about 20 per cent as against the national forest policy target of 33 per cent. Moreover, environmentalists believe that the project is not essential and will end up consuming 24 per cent more energy than it will generate.

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Shankar Sharma, a power policy analyst told The Federal that a pumped storage power plant is meant to generate additional power required to meet electricity demand for the peak hours of the day only (about two hours early in the morning and/or two hours in the evening) and is supposed to utilise any surplus electricity in the state during the night off-peak hours to pump water from a lower reservoir to the higher level reservoir.

Hence, the plant will be in operation for only about 20 per cent of the time as compared to a typical hydel power plant which operates for more than 60 per cent of the time. Can we consider such a power plant as worthy of its huge ecological costs, Sharma asked.

The pumped-storage power plant will consume about 24 per cent more electricity in pumping water from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir as compared to the electricity it can generate from the same volume of water. As per the pre-feasibility report, this 2,000 MW capacity power project is estimated to generate about 12,000 MWh per year of electricity, whereas about 14,833 MWh of energy is estimated to be consumed in the process of pumping water from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir.

“The proposed pumped storage power plant scheme will consume about 24 per cent more energy from the grid than it can generate in a year. The proposed pumped storage hydel power project is not essential for the demand/supply of power in the state of Karnataka, and it is not sustainable or green in nature. Since there are many much less costly options to meet the peak hour electricity demand, the costs and benefits analysis of this proposal will establish beyond doubts that it is the least attractive option,” said Sharma.

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Responding to the criticism, KPCL officials told The Federal that the project is safe and there would be no impact on the environment. Chinnaswamy, Chief Engineer, Electrical Design, KPCL, said, “We cannot take individual opinions. Somebody will say the project is required, while some opponents will say it is not required. We can not go by that.”

On the importance of the project, he said, “During the peak hours, we will start generating electricity from the pump. When there is excess power supply in the grid, we will utilise it for pumping purposes. In the evening solar energy becomes zero, at that point of time we will utilise the energy.”

“There will be no impact of the project on the environment. There are already two dams in the area. We are constructing an underground powerhouse that will have no impact on the environment,” Chinnaswamy said.

Of the estimated 153 hectares (ha) of land required for the project, 93 ha will be unaffected as the project will be located below the forest cover. The remaining 60 ha of land is required during the construction of the project for 60 months. This would be restored/replanted after that, said a report in the New Indian Express, quoting KPCL officials. Only about 35 ha forest would be lost permanently.

To this, Sharma contended that “the decision-making involves cost and benefit analysis but the feasibility report of the project has not looked at any other option other than the pump storage plant. Even without cutting a single tree, the gap between the peak hour demand and supply can be met within Karnataka using benign options.”

“The transmission and distribution (T&D) loss in Karnataka is 18 per cent while the international best practice is only five per cent. Even if we reduce it to eight per cent, the peak hour demand will be met. Enormous amount of electricity can be saved if the lighting system is improved in the state. If they do it, they will meet the T&D loss without cutting a single tree and without using 24 per cent more energy than what they are generating.”

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Former state forest secretary and chairman of the Bangalore Environmental Trust (BET), Dr AN Yellapa Reddy told The Federal that the electricity required to pump up water will be generated by using coal rather than solar energy. This is because solar infrastructure needs a lot of space which they do not have in the forest area. This simply means a lot of coal is going to be burnt, which will be very polluting. The project is not good for the environment and must be shelved immediately, he said.

Dr Reddy said that such projects are cleared to benefit contractors and politicians with the bureaucrats facilitating it. They are not at all concerned about the environment since they are busy filling their own pockets with zero knowledge of environmental issues and how to maintain the ecology, he alleged.

The Sharavathi Valley sanctuary is one of the largest protected areas of tropical evergreen forest in the fragile Western Ghats. And, the Ghats are among eight biodiversity hotspots in the world.

The Sharavathi river already generates 40 per cent of the hydel power generated in Karnataka from its seven dams, nearly equal to 1500 MW. Home to a diverse array of species and rich biodiversity, some of which are still hidden from the outside world, the Sharavathi Valley hosts the endangered Lion-Tailed Macaque and the Great Indian Hornbill, among others. The sanctuary is, in fact, a declared conservation priority area for the long term survival of the Macaque.

Akhilesh Chipli, a member of a non-governmental organisation, SWAN and Man (Save-Wild-Atmosphere-Nature and Man), said that habitat fragmentation also threatens the Deccan Mahseer fish. The Sharavathi valley is also one of the last compact tracts of the evergreen forests remaining in the Western Ghats.

Local environmentalist Pandurang Hegde said that the government should not violate its own mandate to protect the sanctity of the sanctuary for the sake of a project.

He further said that the irreversible destruction of the Sharavathi rainforest could permanently harm the pattern of local rains and river flow, and substantially reduce water availability to the multiple hydel projects which are functioning in the river valley.

“When we consider the overall electricity scenario in the state, it becomes evident that the project is not essential,” Hegde said.

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