Solar irrigation can transform Indian agriculture, enhance livelihoods of small to marginal farmers

Farmers can have control over water and electricity supply through solar water pumps 

By Jasleen Bhatti
Published: Wednesday 23 June 2021
Solar irrigation to transform Indian agriculture & enhance the livelihood of small to marginal farmers. Photo: Prabuddha Raj / Wikimedia Commons

A large part of the Indian workforce — nearly 40 per cent — depends on agriculture. But cultivable land is limited and the water table is dropping; which makes irrigation important.

Changing rainfall patterns have added to farmers'woes. It is, thus, critical to look into ways to enhance agricultural production by increasing cropping intensity and employing effective irrigation techniques. 

For the first time in several years, farmers can have control over water and electricity supply through solar water pumps (SWP). The new technology may also help improve groundwater management.

Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan (PM-KUSUM) project intends to give farmers greater financial security as well as more sustainable water access by generating solar electricity on their farms.

By 2022, the goal is to add 30.8 gigawatts (gW) of solar capacity, including roughly two million off-grid pumps. This initiative would help the Government of India achieve the second sustainable development goal mandated by the United Nations that aims to double agricultural productivity and provide adequate wages by 2030.

Expanded scope of PM-KUSUM

The central government’s goal of over two million solar-powered off-grid irrigation pumps by 2022 is progressing poorly, according to a recent report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. SWP adoption was far slower than anticipated, despite substantial economic benefits.

Only 8,900 SWPs were installed within the first year after the launch of the scheme in 2019, according to Union Ministry of New and Renewable Resources. The project scope was broadened to enable significantly larger solar power generation in the agrarian sector, based on the outcomes of the first year of implementation.

Some of the major improvements are:

  • States may permit techno-commercially feasible solar installations for a capacity of less than 500 kilowatts. These may be erected on grazing, marshy, barren and fallow land.
  • The solar power plant must be commissioned by the selected renewable power generator within 12 months of receiving the Letter of Award.
  • Under the central financial assistance programme, water user associations / farmer producer organisations / primary agriculture credit societies will be able to install and use SWPs of 7.5 horse-power or more, and a capacity of up to 5 HP for each individual in the group.
  • Universal Solar Pump Controller (USPC) to power the water pump and other electrical devices such as cold storage, battery charging and wheat mill.
  • Farmers can sell any surplus solar power generated to distribution companies on a predetermined tariff set by the state / state electricity regulatory commission.

Green irrigation trajectory

For decades, power supply for agriculture has been erratic and often available during the night time. By 2030, the shift to SWPs and grid-connected solar power plants will enable 40-50 gW of agricultural load to be shifted from night to day, aiding farmers with reliable daytime electricity.

Distribution companies can save on capital cost by providing farmer cooperative only one main connection. The technology will enable elimination of agricultural power subsidies.

The solar pumps can also provide a steadfast secondary source of income for farmers by selling surplus power to the discoms. Farmers will also be motivated to use less power for agriculture.

Integrating small, marginal farmers 

SWP allocation targets must be established for small- and marginal farmers. Several SWP of different specifications should be made available based on farmer requirements.

Small farmers should be enabled to obtain additional solar panels at a subsidised cost for upgrades to higher capacity pumps if the water table drops.

Latest internet of things technologies should be used to improve grid integration and consumption. This scheme should support only those state governments that are willing to incorporate adequate surveillance and control mechanisms to curb groundwater extraction.

Stringent regulatory requirements to guarantee effective discom operations like frequent reporting on installations, operations, evacuation, invoicing and payment to farmers.

There should be focus on state-level convergence of allied policies on single online window with access to farmers and suppliers.

Integration of SWPs with drip irrigation and sprinklers should be promoted to save water and electricity and ensure improved crop yield per additional drop of water.

Farmers should be trained to better utilise contemporary farming technology. Building trust among farmers by demonstrating SWP operating facilities is important.

Turnaround time for suppliers should be fixed to ensure quick resolution of SWP technical issue. Those failing to adhere to the timeframe may be penalized.

Farm power tariffs and time constraints on electricity supply should be progressively increased to promote solarisation of agricultural feeders.

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