India is one of the largest producers of agricultural crops (both food grains and non-food grains), but ranks very low in terms of agricultural productivity (the ratio of agricultural outputs to agricultural inputs). This is mainly due to the power supply situation in the agricultural sector that remains dismal as many farmers have to rely on inconsistent rainfall for the irrigation of crops. A reliable and affordable power supply for irrigation is needed to increase agricultural productivity.
At the moment, due to frequent and prolonged power cuts, farmers are using polluting diesel pump sets to meet their energy requirements. In contrast, solar irrigation pumps are a viable, clean source of power for farmers. Since solar energy is produced during the day, these pumps are ideal for farming and irrigation activities. Farmers will be able to save money otherwise spent on diesel pumps, and any excess power generated by the solar pumps can be sold to DISCOMs at competitive prices, thus providing an extra form of revenue for them. Their adoption will also reduce the financial losses of DISCOMs as they will no longer have to disburse subsidised power to farmers.
The central government of India has been actively encouraging the use of solar pumps among farmers through various government schemes. These subsidised programs make solar pumps more affordable and help farmers meet their irrigation requirements. The schemes include the solarisation of existing pumps as well as the installation of new solar pumps and grid-connected ground-mounted solar power plants. All excess power that is generated from these pumps can be sold as surplus green power to DISCOMs.
Many states have adopted these schemes, for example, the Gujarat government announced the Suryashakti Kisan Yojana in July 2018, to provide solar panels for farmers generating clean, low-cost energy. Other states like Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Karnataka have also joined hands with the central government to address the need for solar irrigation pumps. This has led to a total of 225,494 solar pumps being installed across the country in the last five years.
Solar Pumps Installed in the Last Five Years Including FY 2018-2019
Apart from the policies and subsidies, feasible business models have also largely contributed to the uptake of solar pumps in the country. The most popular are the community-based solar irrigation model and the shared-service model. In the community-based solar irrigation model, a group of farmers join together and form a joint liability group. This group then buys one solar pump through joint loans from banks. A joint loan not only makes solar pump financing affordable, but it also distributes the risk of payment defaults for banks. In the shared-service model, a renewable energy service company (RESCO) owns and operates the solar pump. Water that is obtained from this pump is shared by all the farmers in that specific area. Farmers will have to pay a minimum service wage to the RESCO for the use of this water. This model is more common as farmers don’t have to bear the upfront capital costs of the pumps. RESCOs also operate portable solar pumps that can be used in rotation by all farmers in a village which, in turn, will help in the economic development of the whole village.
Unfortunately, the uptake has been lower than expected, especially in agricultural rich states. The biggest reason for this is simply a lack of awareness among farmers. For those farmers that are aware of the schemes securing financing for these solar pumps is a huge challenge. Thus, state governments, in coordination with NGOs, need to undertake capacity building and awareness programmes for farmers and communities in villages. Streamlined processes should be developed to encourage farmers to adopt solar pumps and backup power systems should be set up by RESCOs to ensure generation during cloudy days as well.
Going forward, state and local agencies must work together to increase awareness regarding the benefits of solar irrigation through demonstrations and pilot projects. Innovative financing schemes will also increase the appeal of solar pumps and the implementation of large solar irrigation programmes by RESCOs in certain areas will help farmers reduce their financial burdens. With government policies and viable business models already in place, all that is needed to drive solar pump uptake is capacity development by farmers and local authorities.