During his budget speech, India Finance Minister Mr. Arun Jaitley announced a $67 million package for installing 100,000 solar-powered irrigation pump sets and water pumping stations. Not much talked about, but this is an important step considering India’s irrigation woes and the fact that almost half of its population depends on agriculture for their livelihood.
The problems concerning irrigation in India are too deep to uncover in a single post. India has about 26 million groundwater pumps (both diesel and electric) on farms that cost a mammoth $6 billion a year in energy subsidies. Irrigation pumps used in the agriculture sector account for about 25% of electricity and 12% of the diesel consumed. But these pumps irrigate only 44% of the area under cultivation, the farmers elsewhere are left staring up to the rain gods. The grid which supplies electricity to the farmers is itself in bad shape with frequent outage. To add to this, the farmers care neither for the electricity (which is either free or highly subsidized) nor for the water being pumped, as a result wasting both. All in all it’s a huge food-water-energy nexus issue.
In a sun-rich, albeit fossil-deficient India, solar water pumping appears to be a silver bullet solution to these problems. Solar pumping has a near perfect correlation with solar radiation available and also the pumped water demand. As a result, you don’t really need a battery to store electrical energy and can ‘really’ have a system which would run for 15-20 years.
In order to promote solar pumps amongst farmers, a number of half-hearted attempts were taken, but the real shot in the arm came from the programs in the desert state of Rajasthan. The program promoted by Rajasthan’s agriculture department put forward three important conditions to be fulfilled by the farmers seeking subsidized solar pumps: they were supposed to have water storage facility, use drip irrigation, and grow crops which would fetch more revenue. During 2012-13, the program led to an uptake of 3,000 solar pumps.
Not only has the program been very well received by the farmers, it has also helped to create a small pool of mostly indigenous solar pump industry entrepreneurs. The target for the next round of the program in Rajasthan has been set to 10,000 solar pumps. Other states, especially Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh have announced their own plans to promote solar pumps. However, with the total number of solar pumps in India reported to be just 11,626 there is a really long way to go.
The next big challenge is going to be reducing the subsidies. In Rajasthan, for example, the government subsidizes solar pumps to the extent of 86%, the remaining cost being borne by the farmer. However, product innovation, better economies of scale, and rising energy prices could eliminate the need for subsidies. As Mr. Tarun Kapoor, the joint secretary of India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, says: “Irrigation pumps may be the single largest application for solar in the country.”