Great Indian Bustard habitat: Govt urges SC to modify order on underground cables

The Centre has approached the Supreme Court seeking modification of its order directing that all transmission cables in the habitat of the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) be laid underground, saying that the area falling in Rajasthan and Gujarat contains a large proportion of the country’s total solar and wind energy potential and the process will escalate the cost of renewable energy production and hurt India’s renewable energy cause.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta mentioned the plea before Chief Justice of India N V Ramana and urged him to list it for hearing. The CJI said he will look into it.

In a bid to check the dwindling numbers of the endangered Great Indian Bustard and Lesser Florican, a Supreme Court bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India S A Bobde had, on April 9, directed that overhead power lines be laid underground, wherever feasible, passing along the habitat of the birds in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Seeking modification of this order, the application filed jointly by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), Ministry of Power and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) said the SC direction “has vast adverse implications for the power sector in India and energy transition away from fossil fuels” and that the MNRE was not heard before the order was passed.

The government said that energy transition is essential for reducing emission and controlling climate change and India has made international commitments including under the agreement signed in Paris in 2015 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for transition to non-fossil fuels and for emission reduction. India, it added, has set a target to achieve installed renewable energy capacity (excluding large Hydro) of 175 GW by 2022 and 450 GW by 2030.

The plea submitted that “the area sought to be debarred in Rajasthan and Gujarat is 80,688 km2…and the present habitat of GIBs is protected by enclosures which occupy only 1% of it… The area being debarred…also contains a very large proportion of the total solar and wind energy potential of the country and, in particular, has very high solar irradiance. Undergrounding high voltage power lines is technically not possible. Undergrounding medium/ low voltage lines over such a large area will lead to high cost of RE produced from the area…”

The government pointed out that “so far, only a miniscule 3 percentage of the estimated potential of around 263 GW renewable energy of this area has been tapped” and that “if the remaining potential stays untapped, we will need an additional 93,000 MW of coal fired capacity to replace the unutilised renewable energy in the future which would cause an adverse direct impact on the environment”.

The government said that to ensure conservation of the GIB and its habitat, MoEF&CC has developed the National Bustard Recovery Plans which are currently being implemented by conservation agencies. MoEF&CC, Rajasthan government and Wildlife Institute of India (WII) have also established a conservation breeding facility in Desert National Park at Jaisalmer in June 2019.

It said that the threat to GIBs is due to multiple reasons requiring measures at Central, State and local levels spanning across different sectors. The plea also pointed to several technical difficulties in undertaking the project as “there is no manufacturer of underground/ insulated cables for 765 kV in the world”.

It urged the court to allow high voltage and extra high voltage lines i.e. 66 kV and above power lines in Priority GIB Habitat to be laid as overhead power lines with installation of appropriate mitigation measures such as bird diverters.

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