Power farming: The onerous task of making agrivoltaics work

A pilot agrivoltaics project at Krishi Vigyan Kendra at Ujwa, Delhi.  (P. Anima)
A pilot agrivoltaics project at Krishi Vigyan Kendra at Ujwa, Delhi. (P. Anima)

Summary

  • Agrivoltaics, a concept that melds farming and renewable energy-based power generation, is practised with fair success in China, Europe and Japan. India now has experiments running—over 25 of them. However, running a solar power plant on agricultural land isn’t an easy job.

New Delhi: After the capital city’s looping highways and residential colonies make way for winding village roads and mustard fields in bloom, at Ujwa in Delhi’s south-western periphery, the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) exists as a knowledge hub for farmers. Its expansive fields host multiple projects showcasing natural and dairy farming, mushroom and vegetable cultivation. It also demonstrates a pilot project on agrivoltaics, a concept that melds farming and renewable energy-based power generation.

The season’s last batch of broccoli, tomato and onion grow under three rows of inter-spaced solar panels perched on structures 3.5 metre high. To gauge the impact of shade on yield, crops underneath and in between solar panels are interchanged across rows. Come summer, gourds will grow between the ground and solar panels.

“We practice a three-tier farming system. Photovoltaic (PV) power generation happens at the top and farming of cucurbits and leafy vegetables at levels two and three," said Dr D.K. Rana, head and senior scientist at KVK. Crops are watered through drip irrigation and fresh water sourced from a tank to clean the panels. The 100-kW capacity plant is connected to the BSES grid within the complex.

 

Though yield of crops under solar panels tends to be 10-15% less, officials observed it is compensated by power generation, eventually settling into small profits.

Set up under the Mukhyamantri Kisan Aay Badhotri Solar Yojana in 2021, the pilot project is executed by KVK and Noida-based Okridge Rooftops; the latter maintains and operates the power plant, while the institute manages the farming. Over 1.3 lakh units of electricity were generated in the first year and vegetables harvested. Though yield of crops under solar panels tends to be 10-15% less, officials observed it is compensated by power generation, eventually settling into small profits. A demonstration project, it exhibits the potential of a model where the farmer is a key stakeholder, and which, when rightly executed, can enhance earning.

India committed to meet 50% of its installed electricity capacity from non-fossil fuel-sources and enhance its renewable energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030 at Glasgow. Reckoned as the model of the future, Distributed Renewable Energy (DRE)—electricity generated from small grids connected to a power generation source nearby rather than a centralized system—warrants options other than sprawling solar parks. Agrivoltaics—a 2-in-1 model—thereby becomes an allure; to its advantage, it can work in smaller spaces, make renewable-energy geographically democratic and enable farming and power generation to co-exist. The reason why multiple entities—agricultural scientists, researchers, technical experts and solar developers—are taking a shot at it.

India committed to meet 50% of its installed electricity capacity from non-fossil fuel-sources and enhance its renewable energy capacity to 500GW by 2030 at the COP-26 summit in Glasgow.
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India committed to meet 50% of its installed electricity capacity from non-fossil fuel-sources and enhance its renewable energy capacity to 500GW by 2030 at the COP-26 summit in Glasgow. (AFP)

A compilation by the National Solar Energy Federation of India (Nsefi) and Indo-German Energy Forum in 2023 pegs the operational agrivoltaics pilot projects at 25; the number has grown since. Pilot projects are underway at academic institutions, government establishments and private enterprises in equal measure, the largest so far is a 4 MW plant at Cochin International Airport.

New power dynamic

Experimental models have existed for a decade, but the agrivoltaics scene in India is yet to heat up, for what appears a perfect solution on paper throws up multiple challenges on the ground. It places two unlikely stakeholders—the solar developer and the farmer—in the middle and that brings with it a skewed power dynamic. A solar power plant on agricultural land demands recalibrations from the developer and the farmer, entails technical adaptation, design modification and crop diversification, raises questions of ownership and equitable partnerships. Experts stress a synergy between power generation and farming is critical. As technical fine-tuning continues, stakeholders assert not enough pilot projects are at work to evolve a sustainable business model. Yet, its potential to accentuate farmers’ income and enhance renewable-energy access makes it a draw.

A solar power plant on agricultural land demands technical adaptation, design modification and crop diversification. It also raises questions around ownership.
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A solar power plant on agricultural land demands technical adaptation, design modification and crop diversification. It also raises questions around ownership. (P. Anima)

Agrivoltaics is practiced with fair success in Europe, Japan and China. “In countries with land constraints but renewable energy targets to meet, agrivoltaics is an attractive option," said Anas Rahman, policy advisor at International Institute for Sustainable Development (Iisd). Agrivoltaics in India: Challenges and Opportunities for Scale-up, an Iisd report, noted that agrivoltaics is defined in Europe and Japan giving primacy to agriculture. Power generation, but not at the cost of farming. The globally installed agrivoltaics capacity stood at 2.8 GW in 2020, said the report with China leading the fray with 1.9 GW. Japan has an installed agrivoltaics capacity of around 600 MW and Germany of 15 MW, it added.

The globally installed agrivoltaics capacity stood at 2.8 GW in 2020, stated a report, with China leading the fray with 1.9 GW.

The absence of an agrivoltaics policy as yet in India means definitions, standards and dominant models are not in place. However, the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha (PM-KUSUM) policy promotes mini-grid connected solar power plants on agricultural land.

Many models

Agrivoltaics currently manifests in multiple models in India: ground-mounted, partial or fully elevated and even vertical solar panel structures co-existing with farming. “We are in the phase of developing models," said Subrahmanyam Pulipaka, chief executive officer (CEO), Nsefi. “As a subcontinent we have multiple agro-climatic and agro-ecological zones. We need to evolve mechanisms and templates suitable for specific crops in specific zones. There is no one-size fits all solution," he added.

At Jodhpur’s ICAR-Central Arid Zone Research Institute (Cazri), design experimentation and crop effectivity research are on since 2016. Working out of Rajasthan, a desert state and an arid zone, which experts believe can benefit from agrivoltaics, Cazri scientists evolved models to optimally aid photosynthesis and photovoltaics. “To integrate agriculture and photovoltaics, we created multiple models—solar panels in a single, double and triple rows. We experimented with different densities and panel gaps to enable unmitigated sunlight for at least two-three hours," said Priyabrata Santra, head, division of natural resources, Cazri.

The models served as a base for pilot projects in other states such as Telangana and Maharashtra.

What to grow

Yield under solar panels registered a drop for traditional crops such as cumin and isabgol. “We observed a drop of 10-15%. We also tried pulses, vegetables and medicinal crops. Some were not suitable to agrivoltaics at all. But there were others that performed very well, aloe vera for instance," Santra said.

While traditional agronomic crops such as paddy and wheat are not conducive to agrivoltaics, Santra emphasized that factoring in the high cost, the concept is best suited for crops with market value, particularly horticulture. “We have to think innovatively. The economic price of a crop in a region should decide the agrivoltaics choice," he said.

While traditional agronomic crops such as paddy and wheat are not conducive to agrivoltaics, the concept is best suited for horticulture.
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While traditional agronomic crops such as paddy and wheat are not conducive to agrivoltaics, the concept is best suited for horticulture.

Agrivoltaics can, over a period of time, keep the micro climate of a region favourable for farming especially when weather extremities are the norm, Santra observed.

With land not as much a constraint, the potential of agrivoltaics to aid climate resilience and be a DRE avenue favours the concept in India, agreed Vivek Saraf, CEO, SunSeed Pvt. Ltd, agri PV solutions provider and developer. Saraf is implementing large and small agrivoltaics pilot projects in Maharashtra.

Research, experiments, data generation and analysis to evolve a profitable model have been on for over two years. “Projects should be designed to enable not just growing crops but benefitting it," he said. Saraf uses scientific design software to simulate light and shade scenarios, study impacts on crops and yield, and effects of micro climate. “All of it needs to be factored to predict crop yield and solar generation." He has since gravitated towards niche climate-controlled cultivation with power generation.

If you get the design and crop right, agrivoltaics works. The big challenge is the business model. — Vivek Saraf

Commercial open-field cultivation is tough, Saraf noted, when high agrivoltaics cost, labour expenses and weather uncertainties are considered. “Upfront costs are higher with agrivoltaics. You have to recover the cost over multiple years from additional profit on the ground. You need to make sure the farmer or farmers producer organizations are making more money than earlier and the developer is not losing money. It is complex."

While a regular ground-mounted 1 MW solar plant costs about 3.5 crore, a similar capacity agrivoltaics plant involves investment in the range of 3.8-5.5 crore subject to elevation of solar panel structure which, in turn, depends on crop requirements. Europe has additional tariffs for developers in agrivoltaics, Saraf noted.

“Technically if you get the design and crop right, agrivoltaics works. The big challenge is the business model," he observed.

The maths

Multiple crops grow under solar panels in a pilot run by SunMaster Agri, at Issapur village, Najafgarh.
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Multiple crops grow under solar panels in a pilot run by SunMaster Agri, at Issapur village, Najafgarh. (P. Anima)

The first phase of pilot projects revolved around design and efficiency. However, an important stakeholder in the dynamic—the farmer—continues to be a marginal player. Most pilot projects in India are housed in academic institutions or government-supported organizations. Existing commercial pilots work by leasing land from the farmer.

SunMaster Agri stands out in the sea of wheat and mustard fields of Issapur village, Najafgarh, courtesy the canopy of solar panels. Inside the shaded 2.5 MW farm with panels perched high enough to run tractors, each patch grows different vegetables and fruits. Farmer Harpal Dagar had leased 4.5 acres out of the 9 acres he owned to the solar developer for 27 years. He also works at the farm for a monthly compensation.

“In my fields, we grow wheat and mustard for four months and land is empty for the rest of the year," said Dagar. Farmers cultivate only a crop annually as the groundwater is salty. Dagar’s annual earnings from the farm ranged from 25,000- 35,000 an acre. The lease gets him 1lakh per acre a year.

A 1MW-capacity solar power plant generates 14-15 lakh units of electricity annually. —Anas Rahman

At the farm, connected to the BSES grid, multiple crops are being experimented with. Turmeric is harvested in the shade, cauliflower and tomatoes are grown in patches, fodder crops, and plantain as well.

“Cultivation began in 2021. We are still in a phase of experimentation; hence the trial with multiple crops to find which ones deliver the best yield," said Surinder Ahuja, founder and CEO, SunMaster Agri. At Issapur, the developer carries out the farming. Crops cultivated in the trial stages were sold in local markets and yielded an annual profit of around 70,000 after labour costs, observed Ahuja. Electricity generated is sold to the power distribution company (DISCOM) at a fixed tariff.

“A 1 MW-capacity solar power plant generates 14-15 lakh units of electricity annually. Tariffs are decided on the basis of year of installation and stays the same for next 25 years," said Rahman. Though volatile post-covid, tariffs are around 3.3 per unit currently; a 1 MW plant generates electricity worth around 50 lakh annually.

The gap

Business models for agrivoltaics partnership throw up various permutations and combinations. The Iisd report charted out three options: Partnership between farmer and developer where farmers and developers co-design the system to suit both their needs; a system owned and operated by one entity; and one in which developer is the primary promoter, while farmer is the partner.

“In the Indian context, it is not at all possible for a farmer to invest in such an enterprise considering the economic capabilities of small and medium farmers," said Rahman, lead author of the paper. A partnership with private developers and farmers can throw up a dicey dynamic, he said.

“When a power plant is set up on agricultural land, the asset is locked for at least 25 years factoring the age of the plant. Farmers might have to work under the constraint of the power plant and the relationship between farmer and private player is going to be biased towards the latter," he noted.

Which, he added, leaves the option where the developer leases the land from the farmer in lieu of a monthly or annual rent. “I am yet to see a model in India where the farmer is a major participant or a co-operative model coming together," Rahman said.

The next steps

It is the gap agrivoltaics stakeholders are attempting to fix. The newly-formed India Agrivoltaics Alliance (Iaa) hosted at Nsefi intends to re-align the perspectives on agrivoltaics to make it holistic.

“The Iaa arose from the realization that agrivoltaics need to be represented from the perspectives of farmers, developers, farmers producer organizations and financial institutions. Earlier, we made the mistake of approaching agrivoltaics purely from a solar side. Now, we are beginning to look at it from both agriculture and solar," said Pulipaka.

Apart from the stakeholders, the alliance comprises think-tanks, farmer organizations and women-led NGOs.

The absence of an agrivoltaics policy in India means definitions, standards and dominant models are not in place just yet.
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The absence of an agrivoltaics policy in India means definitions, standards and dominant models are not in place just yet. (P. Anima)

Raising awareness among farmers to make them active participants in executing agrivoltaics is critical, he emphasized. “We need pilot projects if not in every village, then at least in every zilla panchayat so that farmers can understand how it works," said Pulipaka and added the Iaa aims to take pilot projects to farmers.

With the focus on Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra in the first year, the Iaa held a workshop with multiple stakeholders including farmers and farmers producer organizations in February.

Agrivoltaics in India has so far not received fillips in terms of subsidies from the government, and experts noted, unless a model that benefits farmers evolves, it remains unlikely. Exactly when the concept will mature in India remains fuzzy but stakeholders asserted the next couple of years will be critical. As a model that secures the rights of both farmers and developers continues to be in the works, more pilots are the norm for now.

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