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Here's another twist on "diesel-killing" solar panels: SunEdison's sustainable business model for providing solar water pumps to small farmers.


Diesel Braces For An Avalanche Of Solar Water Pumps

Here’s another twist on “diesel-killing” solar panels: SunEdison’s sustainable business model for providing solar water pumps to small farmers.

Leading global solar company SunEdison has been quietly introducing solar water pumps to farming communities for the past few years, and it looks like things are really going to start opening up. That will spell big trouble for diesel, which to date has held a virtual monopoly on non-electric irrigation pumps for small farms in India, Africa, and other underserved regions.

As another example of “diesel-killing” solar technology, SunEdison’s solar water pump involves more benefits than simply cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions, so let’s take a look under the hood.

SunEdison solar water pumps

The Eradication Of Darkness

SunEdison and its panelists made a good case for killing off diesel at Tuesday’s “Eradication of Darkness” summit in New York, hosted by the company and its Social Innovations platform.

The idea behind the summit was to drum up investor interest in a sustainable business model for introducing solar power to small farmers in communities that either have no grid connection, or that have unreliable connectivity.

One point that SunEdison representatives hammered home is that while charity has an important role to play in providing off-grid equipment, the key to success is providing communities with a knowledge base for maintaining and repairing the stuff.

“Diesel Generators Are Pretty Dumb”

We’re particularly interested in the solar water pump angle because, as described by the panelists, it provides such a clear contrast with diesel generators.

While solar energy is “free” once the panels go up, diesel generators continue to suck resources out of the community in the form of expensive fuel payments and repairs.

Even when diesel generators are functioning, depending on their age and quality, they can require constant monitoring, sucking labor away from more productive tasks. That can be especially true of donated generators, when the donor fails to include repair and maintenance training in the package.

We had a chance to speak with Social Innovations President Alakesh Chetia right after the summit, and he filled us in on another disadvantage of diesel generators.

“The diesel generators are pretty dumb,” he said. “You turn them on and they keep pumping until you turn them off.”

What that means is that diesel generators can easily overdo it, providing more than enough irrigation water while wasting fuel.

Solar Is Smarter

Solar energy could also run into over-pumping issues, but as Chetia explained, the SunEdison solar water pump is customizable with a “smart” control system, so that it provides water more closely tailored to the farmer’s actual needs.

That brings us to another clear advantage of solar water pumps. With diesel generators, once you’ve pumped sufficient water the equipment sits idle. In order to put it to other uses — generating electricity for lighting, for example — you have to spend more resources on fuel.

The picture is totally different with solar. Once your irrigation needs are met, your fuel continues to be free. Aside from the potential for charging up batteries for on site use, Chetia foresees a net metering solution that could provide solar water pump owners with an additional source of revenue.

As for the business side of things, SunEdison’s model is based on the relatively low yields and small number of harvests that are the norm when farmers depend on rain. With a reliable supply of power for irrigation, farmers can increase their yields and their harvests, providing additional income to pay off a low-interest loan.

Run Diesel, Run

Along with our sister site PlanetSave we’ve covered a number of SunEdison’s high-profile, large scale solar investments, and the company has recently expanded into large-scale wind, but its Social Innovation platform has also demonstrated that small-scale solar can be a profit sector that adds up to a lot of wattage.

Last month, for example, SunEdison hooked up with India’s Omnigrid Micropower Company for at total of 250 megawatts distributed among 5,000 villages in that country.

After catching part of the Eradicate the Darkness summit on livestream and chatting with Mr. Chetia, we’re convinced that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The missing link seems to be a clearinghouse for hooking up lenders with solar experts, so that financial institutions don’t have to reinvent the wheel for small-scale solar loans, but based on what we heard at the summit it won’t be long before the chain is complete.

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Photo credit (cropped): Courtesy of SunEdison.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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