Solar water pumps: strengthening the grassroots

Agriculture was the first step we took to create a new life for ourselves. It was also the first step towards forming a larger community. And agriculture is still the single largest employer in the world, sustaining the livelihood of about 40% of the world’s population. And the primary factor for successful agriculture yield – irrigation – is unfortunately fuelled predominantly by fossil fuels until now. But now that the entire world has taken up the cause of a transition to more environmentally friendly sources of energy generation, it is time to transform our most ancient, but important practices (namely agriculture) as well.

Improved agricultural processes can help fight poverty and stimulate socioeconomic growth. Research shows that, with every 10% increase in farm yield, poverty reduction of more than 7% in Africa and more than 5% in Asia is possible. However, rising fossil fuel prices restrict developing countries from developing a robust agricultural system. Solar pumps are offering a way to improve cultivation processes, and avoid the chokehold of conventional energy choices, by reducing diesel fuel intake considerably.

McLeod Tea Estate

Benefits of solar pumps to agriculture

In India more than 52% of the country’s total workforce is employed in the agricultural sector. And the cost of energy for pumping water can be up to 30% of the total expenses for farmers. So, switching to solar pumps is cheaper and convenient. But that’s not the full story. By promoting solar water pumps, India can raise awareness regarding solar energy usage, bringing more people to the fold, while saving approximately $6 billion a year in electricity and diesel subsidies. So besides streamlining the agricultural process, solar pumps are also going to play a major role in getting small businesses and farms to embrace solar energy. Understanding the benefits, countries have announced ambitious targets for solar pump installations. India has announced a target of installing 1 million solar pumps by 2021, Bangladesh has a target of 50,000 solar pumps by 2025; and Morocco aims for 100,000 solar pumps by 2022.

Business models for solar pumps in farming

Unreliable and often non-existent electricity grids have made many countries dependent on diesel for irrigation. These countries generally see huge increases in their fossil fuel intake during irrigation seasons (over 25% of annual diesel use in countries like Bangladesh). As a result, the fiscal burden on public budgets rises to unsustainable levels, since energy for irrigation is generally subsidised. Given that keeping food costs low is one of the primary requirements for any country, spending so much on growing food doesn’t make sense!

In order to address this issue and support the growth of solar powered irrigation pumps, the Indian government has also introduced different business models. Besides buying the pump with huge subsidies (30% capital subsidy), there are other facilities such as:

  • Group access facility: In this model, the pump can be bought by a group or a community. This process easily divides the financial pressure (if any) and allows every member of the group access to the pump when needed.
  • Renting facility: In this model farmers can rent the pump from service providing companies (generally third-party entities) and use when necessary, saving money on maintenance and storage requirements.
  • Pay as you go facility: This model allows farmers to pay for the pump in instalments. This ensures farmers spend only meagre amounts of money at a time to own their solar pump.

Solar pumps in India: installed capacity to date

As noted above, the massive push behind installation and acceptance of solar pumps came in 2014 when the Indian government announced a 1 million solar water pump installation target by 2021. The government is offering up to a 30% capital subsidy and 5% interest rates as soft loans.

Rajasthan has sweetened the deal by offering an additional subsidy of 56% on top of MNRE’s subsidy. Andhra Pradesh too has shown incredible growth installing more than 6,000 solar pumps, becoming a model state to follow. Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Madhya Pradesh have also fared well in installing solar pumps. India’s actual cumulative installed base stood at 90,710 pumps as of October 2016. Although that makes MNRE’s target to deploy 25,000 pumps within 2012-2017 a success, there are still significant issues that need to be addressed for a more progressive future.

Challenges to be tackled in solar pumps in India

Delay of subsidy disbursal, financing issues, low awareness rate, and confusion in operations and maintenance are all creating roadblocks in solar pump implementation. For example, Maharashtra has completed a tender to procure 10,000 solar water pumps and is offering a whopping 95% capital subsidy to farmers. Still the current number of installations in the state is only 6,500. To deal with these issues, the Indian government should focus on better tender design, offering flexible eligibility criteria and raising awareness.

Solar water pumps can strengthen the grassroots of our socioeconomic structure, which is undoubtedly farming, adding support to invest more in renewable energy and fostering countrywide acceptance. Our dependence on fossil fuels is threatening to transform our beautiful blue planet into a polluted wasteland. Switching to solar energy is the right move and supporting solar pumps can help India leap towards a cleaner, fairer, and cheaper future.