Renewable energy may be greener than fossil fuels, but that does not mean it does not affect the environment.
In fact, biodiversity hotspots in India have started to change because of the country's push for alternative energy sources.
In the Western Ghats, a mountain that stretches across six Indian states along the west coast, wind farms have reduced the abundance and hunting activities of predatory birds such as raptor, according to a recent study by researchers from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore.
As a result, they say, wind turbines create a "predation-free environment" that changes the behavior and even the shape of creatures that are under the food chain.
Among the most prominent in this category are Sarada Superba or fan-filled lizard.
Men of this species, found only in South Asia, have covers under their throats that become brightly colored when they reach sexual maturity, and they use this to attract mates.
The site studied by the researchers was the Chalkewadi plateau in the Satara district, near the Sahyadri Tiger Sanctuary and Koyna Wildlife Reserve in Maharashtra state. This plateau has one of the largest and longest wind farms in the region. In their study, published earlier this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the researchers compared the site to other protected forest areas in the neighborhood.
"The reason we chose this area is that the lizards we studied were actually the most dominant prey in the landscape … So we hope that if there is a change from releasing birds of prey, the lizards will change. And that's what we found, "said Maria Thaker, study author and assistant professor at IISc, to Quartz.
Lizard density is higher in areas with wind turbines, and these lizards show a reduced tendency to escape when they approach, indicating that they are getting used to the environment with fewer predators.
The decline in the attack of predators has resulted in developing species in the area, which in turn, can lead to increased competition for food. Thaker and his team found that male lizards near wind turbines had less intense color compared to their counterparts elsewhere, perhaps because of limited availability of beetles, which included lizards' favorite food and were rich in carotenoids which helped in pigmentation. Color changes, the researchers argue, could have consequences for sexual selection.
While the long-term ramifications of all this are not yet known, Thaker said, in theory, there might be a cascading effect at the lower levels of insects and plants in the food chain.
This is one result that is less discussed about India's move to produce more renewable energy, which has been accelerated under the government led by Modri Narendra. The government has set an ambitious target of 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022. This includes 60 GW of wind energy, which has triggered a revival of wind agricultural infrastructure throughout India, including along the Western Ghats, UNESCO world heritage sites believed to have at least 325 species of threatened flora , fauna, birds and reptiles.
While studies focused on only one plateau, the environmental risks of wind agriculture infrastructure have been documented throughout the world, especially with regard to the reduction of birds around large turbines. And even in India, the spread of renewable energy plants has been found to dramatically affect the populations of the Great Indian Bustard that are endangered in their last habitats in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.
But Thaker said these results did not mean India needed to give up wind energy.
"In the choice between wind turbines and fossil fuels, there are always wind turbines," he explained. "Let's be smart about where we put it. Do not place them in areas that are unique or special or biodiversity, because we will regret if those places change. "
Wind turbines must be placed on top of buildings or in areas that have been severely damaged by human activities, he said, not in pure Indian forests.
Image features by Ashwin Kumar on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. The inline image by Krishna Khan on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.