Solar energy to India’s farmers’ rescue
Inadequate and uneven rainfall has been the bane of the Indian farmers for centuries. For crops like paddy, abundant rainfall is essential, and therefore, almost all paddy growers in different parts of India beseech the rain god to be kind towards them in each season.
To counter the vagaries of the monsoon, Indian farmers have learned to draw underground water by installing electric and diesel pump sets. As on today, there are 12 million electricity connections and 9 million diesel pump sets with which they lift groundwater for irrigation.
With rapid expansion of the industrial and service sectors, the share of agriculture in the country’s GDP has been declining steadily. Today agriculture contributes to just about 15% of the total GDP. However, it still provides employment to 50% of the country’s workforce. With 12 million connections, Indian farmers consume nearly 20% of the total power consumption of the country. Bulk of this power is used for irrigation, and the rest is used for other purposes.
There are many states where power for agricultural purposes is highly subsidized to placate the farmer-voters. To make matters worse, power supply is quite erratic in these states. As a result, the farners feel tempted to leave the pump sets in the ‘switched-on’ condition during the time they are not in their fields. As a result, the pumps run for long hours if power supply comes in between — say during night hours.
The loss due to such practice can be twofold. It leads to unnecessary running of the pump and consumption of power. Also, too much ground water is sucked up due to this. Two precious resources – electricity and ground water are wasted in this manner. The problem will progressively get worse in the coming years.
Solar power to the rescue…
The biggest hurdle for large scale exploitation of solar energy was the exorbitant cost of the solar cells. Happily, over the years, not only have the cells become more efficient, but also their capital cost has gone down. As a result, the cost of solar power has gone down by as much as 70% in the last four years. Further drop in solar energy prices looks so distinctly possible. As a result, solar pumps are fast becoming a financially viable solution for irrigation.
However, there are several hurdles still to be crossed before solar pumps find widespread use.
Problem 1.. ..Solar pumps being so cheap tom operate, farmers might feel tempted to leave pumps running for unduly long periods. This will lead to excessive drawing of ground water and its undesirable consequences.
In states like Punjab and Haryana, electricity for farming needs is free during night hours. This policy helps to even out the load on the grids. On the flip side, such free power encourages wasteful running of pump sets. Not only the fields get over-irrigated, but also ground water level gets depleted due to excessive drawing of water.
Since sunlight falls abundantly over the fields in India, use of solar pumps could encourage more irresponsible utilization of solar power. Groundwater level could fall still further.
This problem can be easily solved by giving an option to the farmers to sell their excess solar power either to the state’s grid or to a nearby consumer. With such financial incentive, farmers will be discouraged from running their solar pumps needlessly.
This model of monetising solar power has been successfully tried in Karnataka through the “Surya Raitha” scheme. The farmer gets 18 U.S. cents for each unit of electric power he sells to the grid. Currently, 300 farmers have enrolled under this scheme on an experimental basis. Seeing its progress, it will be rolled out to include more farmers.
In another World Bank led programme in West Bengal, a contractor is chosen to draw the ground water using his pump, and then sell the water to the farmers. Both the amount of water drawn, and the water sold to individual farmers are remotely monitored to check pilferage and disputes. This model promotes efficiency and curbs wastage.
During the months when irrigation is not needed, the power can be used to carry out other agri-related activities.
Problem 2 .. High capital cost of solar pumps ..
The upfront cost of a solar pump (say 2 HP, equivalent to irrigating 5 acres of land) is about 10 times more than that of a conventional pump. Such high initial outlay may keep small and marginal farmers away from approaching a bank for a loan. This apart, banks still don’t treat solar pumps as good bankable propositions.
When long-term returns are taken into consideration, the high capex of solar pumps does appear to be a deterrent. The cost of running a solar pump is virtually zero. It has a useful working life of about 25 years. The maintenance costs are very less too. The cost of power production from a diesel pump is around $0.30 per unit (compared to $0.15 for a solar pump). With these costs, the payback period works out to 6-9 years. Thus, a solar pump is clearly the more desirable option in the long run. If Indian banks come forward to finance these proposals, solar pumps will be the flavour of the market.
It could have a significant impact on the lives of farmers besides lowering the crude import bill of the country.
Problem 3 –Year-round availability of sunlight….
In many parts of India, cloud cover becomes so thick that not enough sunlight falls on the ground for 60-70 days a year. So, running solar pumps during this period is not possible. However, during these 60-70 days, the land gets enough rainfall to make irrigation unnecessary. Thus, the availability of sunlight to run solar pumps when the fields actually need irrigation amounts to roughly 90%. Such high reliability factor of sunlight is indeed very encouraging. In the practical side, a small farmer may not need all the water his solar pump draws. In such cases, the farmer has to tie up with other farmers in the area who would buy the excess water from him. B
Problem 4 .. Environment friendliness of solar pumps…
Solar pumps burn no diesel or petrol, emit no gases, and make much less sound. India burns more than 4 billion liters of diesel (13% of total diesel consumption in India). Also, for generating thermal power one fifth of which goes to agricultural sector, 85 million tons of coal are burnt annually. So, the amount of Carbon Dioxide released by the thermal plants and the millions of diesel pump sets works out to an alarmingly high amount each year. The outgo of foreign exchange to import the crude runs to billions of dollars. By switching to solar pumps, even though partially, the country can benefit through reduced global warming and expenditure of Forex.
Freeing the farmers from the uncertainty of precipitation would come as a huge relief for them. They can go for two, three, even four crops a year if the supply of water is assured. The perennial clamour for farm subsidies will die down on its own.