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Community Irrigation – The Next Frontier for Off-Grid Solar in India?

After a last push through the Saubhagya scheme, 100% household electrification in India was officially achieved in January 2019. However, even as 25 million households have now been connected to the grid, millions of households alongside small and marginal farmers still lack access to reliable grid electricity for agriculture use.

The Saubhagya announcement, far from discouraging solar energy access entrepreneurs, has enabled a segway into newer markets, particularly towards livelihoods and productive use appliances. As Saubhagya primarily looked at providing grid connections to households, farms and rural enterprises with productive appliances have been left behind. A recent report from Smart Power India on rural electrification in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and Rajasthan highlighted that only 65% of the rural enterprises surveyed are grid-connected and many reported relying instead on diesel engines for power.

Powering productive uses of energy or more specifically income-generating activities is the next logical step in the energy access ecosystem. Enabling machinery and appliances – such as refrigerators, flour mills, computers, printers and water pumps – to run in a more efficient and reliable way can result in greater productivity and income generating opportunities in rural areas. In the on-farm sector in particular, the potential for solar is dominated by the need for irrigation.

The effects of irrigation on agriculture

While the influence of agricultural sector in India’s GDP is declining (it currently contributes around 15-16%), it still provides income to more than half of the total workforce in India – and is therefore the largest source of livelihood. Only 49% of net sown area is irrigated, which indicates that for over half the country's farmland irrigation is yet to reach farmers, who rely entirely on rainfall to grow crops.

Figure 1 Community solar pump with marginal famers customers

Farmers depend almost entirely on electric or diesel groundwater pumps for irrigation. Apart from the 19 million electric pumps used in India, over 9 million farmers in India use diesel pumps, due to erratic and unreliable electricity supply or inability to get electricity connections for agriculture. The vast carbon footprint of diesel fuel consumption in agriculture is illustrated by the fact that these pumps account for 3.1% of national diesel consumption, or 4 billion litres of diesel per annum. Highly subsidised electricity made available for agriculture has resulted in electric pumps consuming 20% of the national power supply, equivalent to combustion of 85 million tonnes of coal per year. Water pumping for irrigation makes the farming sector a major contributor to the climate crisis in India.

Figure 2: Farmers in Bongaigaon district, Assam operating an old diesel-based irrigation pump

Powering agriculture with solar

The potential to solarise irrigation pumps was realised by both energy access enterprises and the national government alike. The Government of India’s KUSUM scheme is expected to provide thrust to the sector as the scheme envisages deployment of 1.75 million off-grid solar pumps.  In addition to 60% capital subsidy from the central and state governments, the scheme has a provision for 30% financing to be provided by banks. Farmers are required to contribute the remaining 10% of the upfront cost from their own savings. However, given that there are only 177,000 solar pumps installed as of March 31, 2018, increasing the quantum by 10 times under the KUSUM scheme over the next four years is an ambitious target.

With farm-loan waivers having become a tried and tested solution for electoral gains, the high risk associated with lending to the farming sector has deterred financiers and private banks.

86% of farms in India are small and marginal with less than 2 hectares of land. The fragmentation of landholdings and the proportion of marginal farmers is increasing every year. These farmers – a large section of whom practice subsistence farming – have cashflows directly linked to the cropping seasons, thereby limiting surplus capital to be invested in technologies such as solar pumps, even after being heavily subsidised by the government. Thus, high capital costs limit ownership of solar pumps to large farmers. Around 60% of small and marginal farmers depend on buying water or renting diesel pumps to meet their irrigation needs, which was found to be the costliest method of accessing irrigation, owing to the rental cost in addition to the cost of diesel for fuel.

Figure 3 Smallholder women farmers in Assam

Number of operational holdings as per different Agricultural Censuses

Figure 4: Data Source- Agricultural Census 2015-16

Need for alternate business models

To meet the needs of these farmers, alternative delivery models such as ‘water as a service’ are most feasible to reach those who do not have the ability to invest. This model is an affordable alternative as it allows farmers to purchase water at a nominal fee according to their usage, rather than invest in the technology themselves. Oorja’s PAYG Community Solar Irrigation service – known as ‘Oonnati’ - is one such solution to provide reliable and affordable water to farmers without any upfront cost. By installing large solar pumps of 3 to 5 HP, the company can pump enough water for a group of 15-30 marginal farmers with adjacent landholding. Water consumption is metered and sold to farmers on a pay-per-use basis. Along with the economic attractiveness of this model and its benefits for farmers, putting a price on water ensures more sustainable water usage. By reducing the cost of irrigation and enabling year-round water access, the growing period can be extended into the dry season from March until June. This enables farmers to grow multiple crop cycles including high-value crops such as fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices and boost their crop yields by up to 50%.

Figure 5: One of Oorja’s pilot Community Solar Irrigation Pumps in Bahraich district, Uttar Pradesh

Solar pumping can therefore provide affordable and reliable access to energy for irrigation. Depending on the context, its impact varies depending on the current irrigation practices:

1. For grid-connected farmers, it helps to overcome erratic and low-quality grid electricity supply.

2. For diesel pump users, it eliminates the need to purchase fuel, the price of which is highly volatile, and enables extension of the growing season.

3. For farmers who practice monocropping or rain-fed agriculture, solar pumping can significantly boost crop yields, and creates the potential for multiple cropping cycles, including high-value cash crops.

IEEFA has estimated that by replacing conventional electric and diesel-based pumps with solar irrigation pumps, India could achieve 38% of its renewable electricity generation target of 175 GW by 2022. In the same stroke, it could also reduce CO2e emissions from coal and diesel by nearly 280 million tonnes cumulatively – equivalent to over 8% of India’s current annual emissions.

While replacing existing pumping infrastructure – notably operationally expensive diesel pumps – will ensure early adoption, it is equally important to focus on how groundwater-rich regions that are currently rainfed can be serviced by solar irrigation. These areas have potential for the maximum impact and benefit to farmers by extension of the growing season and introduction of multiple cropping cycles to boost productivity and income generation, and stimulate rural economic development.

Such an expansion of irrigated land area will invariably lead to increased water use and energy, which must be carefully managed, for instance through introduction of micro-irrigation technologies to save water. This water-energy-food nexus is critical in promoting equitable access to clean energy for irrigation.

 

Lanvin Concessao is a Project Analyst at Oorja Development Solutions handling energy auditing, techno-economic analysis, feasibility assessments for new solar projects, and impact management.

Oorja has successfully deployed three pay-as-you-go (PAYG) Community Solar Pumping systems for irrigation in Uttar Pradesh and plans to replicate the scheme for 120 small and marginal farmers in Assam through a crowdfunding campaign.

 Follow Oorja’s progress on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram via the handle @oorjasolutions.

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Author: Lanvin Concessao