India: Vast Potential in Solar-Powered Irrigation

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Summary

While replacing conventional irrigation pumps with solar-powered ones has the clear advantage of lowering costs, the pace of their deployment across India has been slow.A significant up-scaling of solar-power irrigation would provide multiple benefits to India in terms of:

  • providing distributed/end-of-grid generation;
  • providing distributed/end-of-grid generation;
  • reducing the need for heavily subsidised electricity to the agricultural sector, helping to alleviate financial distress at distribution companies (DISCOMs);
  • creating a positive alignment of solar generation with water irrigation time of use;
  • replacing the use of subsidised, imported diesel with the associated foreign exchange and reduced current account drain;
  • significantly enhancing India’s 100GW-solar-by-2022 mission;
  • lessening environmental impact;
  • expanding and diversifying farmer incomes; and
  • providing a sustained domestic and perhaps even an export opportunity for system manufacturing under the government’s “Make in India” campaign.

All that said, recent initiatives by way of the central government’s Kisan Urja Suraksha Evam Utthaan Mahaabhiyan (KUSUM) scheme and the Gujarat state government’s Suryashakti Kisan Yojana (SKY) scheme are steps in the right direction.

Demand for Sustainable Irrigation Far Exceeds Capacity

As India’s economy has diversified in recent years, agriculture’s contribution as a proportion of GDP has dropped to about 10%1. Yet about 70% of India’s rural households still depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihood, and 82% of farms are considered “small and marginal. Successful farming in India typically requires irrigation. Only 48% of the country’s “net sown area” is irrigated, however, the rest is dependent on the vagaries of nature. Of the country’s total net amount of irrigated land, 62% is watered either by relatively deep tube wells or other, more shallow types of wells. Most of these wells are reliant on electric or diesel pumps.

In June 2018, the Gujarat government introduced the Suryashakti Kisan Yojana (SKY), a pilot project to enable 12,400 farmers in 33 districts of the state to generate solar power—and to use part of that power for irrigation while selling the surplus to the grid for INR 7 (US$0.10) per unit for seven years and INR 3.50 (US$0.05) per unit for the remaining years. Under the initiative, farmers will contribute 40% of installation costs, while central and state governments will subsidize 60% of costs.

This program will enable more farmers access to better power supply for more hours of the day while increasing their agricultural productivity and their overall income. This model and could well adopted by other states and expanded nationally to drive the growth of solar-powered irrigation across India.

Clearly, it makes sense to replace existing electric and diesel pump sets with solar pumps. Some of the many benefits of replacing the current fleet of electric (21 million) and diesel (8.8 million) pump sets are summarised in the table 2.

The government of India could achieve 38% of its renewable electricity-generation target just by shifting from conventional pumps to solar irrigation pumps. Deployment of 5.5-HP solar pumps, on the other hand, would enable the government to achieve 70% of its overall renewable energy target while exceeding its solar energy goal of 100 GW of capacity, as also noted in a recent study by IWMI-TATA, Greenpeace India and GERMI.

The upfront cost of solar pumps, the current heavily subsidised supply of electricity to the rural sector, poor after-installation maintenance support and lack of awareness of the benefits of solar have combined to prevent most Indian farmers from shifting from less efficient, unsustainable modes of irrigation. Nonetheless, solar-powered irrigation offers huge economic and environmental benefits, and the recent KUSUM schemes by the central government and the SKY scheme by the Gujarat state government suggest that attitudes are changing.

The KUSUM scheme aims to deploy 2.75 million solar pumps as part of the first phase of implementation that will produce an additional 4 GW of installed solar power, thereby providing a material boost to India’s renewable energy deployments.The KUSUM scheme aims to deploy 2.75 million solar pumps as part of the first phase of implementation that will produce an additional 4 GW of installed solar power, thereby providing a material boost to India’s renewable energy deployments.An additional advantage of solar irrigation pumps worth noting: The distributed generation aspect of such systems provides significant grid network strengthening while avoiding over-reliance on land intensive utility scale solar projects, an especially sensitive issue in a country as densely populated as India.

Policywise, savings from fuel costs, electricity subsidies and foreign exchange costs present a significant incentive for an appropriately structured subsidy for upfront cost to accelerate deployment of solar pumps. Moving to solar irrigation can save as well on deadweight subsidies that keeps DISCOMs in financial disarray.Policywise, savings from fuel costs, electricity subsidies and foreign exchange costs present a significant incentive for an appropriately structured subsidy for upfront cost to accelerate deployment of solar pumps. Moving to solar irrigation can save as well on deadweight subsidies that keeps DISCOMs in financial disarray.Considering the declining trend in prices of solar modules combined with economies of scale, IEEFA sees the all-in cost of solar-powered irrigation as a strong argument for reducing reliance on the current expensive government-subsidized model. The strategy stands also to give a strong push to the government’s “Make in India” program as domestic manufacturing will grow on demand for solar pumps.

Fig 1: Policies Supporting Solar-Powered Irrigation in India

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Table 1: Irrigation Pumps in India

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Fig 2: Distribution of Wells

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Table 2: Benefits of Replacing Conventional Pumps with Solar-Powered Pumps

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Credits: India: Vast Potential in Solar-Powered Irrigation, IEEF Report, August 2018

 

 

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