Harvesting solar power could propel growth in farm income

Solar-powered water pumps will insure farmers when rains fail and also replace polluting diesel ones


Solar power can help water crop fields and augment farm incomes by feeding the surplus power generated into the grid. Photo: Bloomberg
Solar power can help water crop fields and augment farm incomes by feeding the surplus power generated into the grid. Photo: Bloomberg

New Delhi: India has set an ambitious target of achieving 100,000 megawatts of solar power capacity by 2022 as well as doubling farm incomes by the 75th year of Independence.

Both these targets can be a game changer for rural India if implemented in unison, suggests new research.

According to a recent study by New Delhi-based International Council for Research in International Economic Relations (ICRIER), access to solar power can help water crop fields, build cold storages and augment farm incomes by feeding the surplus power generated into the grid.

The paper titled Harvesting Solar Power in India further said that while farmers can earn guaranteed tariffs by feeding the surplus power into the grid—akin to harvesting a second or a third crop—solar-powered irrigation pumps will insure farmers when rains fail and also replace polluting diesel pumps.

Indian farmers currently use more than 20 million diesel and electric pumps and replacing these with solar-powered ones can help reduce the annual power subsidy bill of the government to the agriculture sector, the paper said.

It added that solar pumps can save farmers more than Rs.1 lakh in costs over a decade, due to high maintenance and fuel costs of diesel pumps.

According to the ICRIER paper, if farmers have the option of selling surplus power to the grid, then they would minimize water pumping and thus conserve water.

“This model would act as an incentive to adopt solar energy in the country, and reduce ground water exploitation and augment farmers’ income,” the paper said.

Government data shows the leaps India is taking in this direction. Till March 2015, it had installed 19,500 solar pumps, but during 2015-16 alone, 31,472 solar pumps were installed across the country.

“This definitely is a boon for remote rural and agriculture areas without any power access as well as sparse electricity supply,” the paper said, adding, “it would be a useful and innovative policy solution to connect such decentralized renewable systems to the grid for additional revenue generation for farmers.”

The paper cited the success story of Dhundi Saur Urja Utapadak Shahakari Mandali in Gujarat as the first solar irrigation cooperative in the world where farmers are selling surplus solar power to discoms.

However, according to the paper, high upfront capital costs of Rs.3-5 lakh for installing solar pumps could be a challenge that has to be overcome by providing credit on easy terms.

Besides using solar pumps, farmers could also benefit by leasing crop lands for installing solar panels, while simultaneously harvesting crops, the paper said. “It is like having a second crop of solar power at a height of 15-20 feet with the food crop below on the field,” the study said, adding, “studies across the globe have proved that shade of solar panels have no negative impact on crop growth, if arranged in a particular configuration that allows sufficient sunlight and wind to pass through to the plants.”

Both the agriculture ministry and the ministry of new and renewable energy have to act in unison to achieve the twin goals of doubling farm incomes and meeting India’s solar energy generation targets by 2022, the paper advised.

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