Will the Sun God answer poor farmers' prayers or make things worse?


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A paddy farmer with his umbrella on a rainy day in West Bengal, India. Photo by Amit Jain / World Bank
Farmer in West Bengal, India. Photo by Amit Jain / World Bank)

If God appeared in the dream of a paddy farmer in India’s West Bengal and said, “You have made me happy with your hard work, make any three wishes and they will be granted,” the farmer will say “I want rain, rain, rain.”

That thought kept playing over and over in my mind, after interacting with farmers in the paddy fields of the Siliguri and Jalpaiguri districts of West Bengal. Located in India’s northeast, the area is famous for its scenic beauty, tea plantations and paddy fields. While the region’s fertile soil makes it ideal for a variety of crops, it is almost entirely dependent on rainfall for irrigation, like anywhere else in the world.

To reduce their dependence on the monsoons, India’s farmers have taken 12 million electricity connections and 9 million diesel pump sets with which they pump up groundwater for irrigation.

Although agriculture’s share of India’s economy is declining—it contributes to less than 15% of India’s GDP—it still employs 50% of the country’s workforce. Not surprisingly, perhaps, up to 20% of all the electricity used in India is for agriculture, mostly for irrigation. In some states, this can account for as much as 30-50% of all the electricity used in the state.

There are many states where power for agricultural purposes is highly subsidized, and this, combined with an unreliable supply of electricity, often causes farmers to leave their pumps on all the time. This wastes both electricity and water, with too much energy being used and too much groundwater being extracted, often way more water than needed. 

Since more than half of India’s cultivated land is yet to be irrigated, a business-as-usual scenario will lead to a huge rise in India’s energy needs for agriculture alone.

But there is an alternative—solar energy.

With decreasing solar modules prices (70% in the last 4 years), solar pumps are fast becoming a viable financial solution for irrigation.

However, there are several questions about the use of solar pumps that need to be answered:

Won’t solar pumps only make farmers more lax about using energy resources and wasting groundwater?

In several Indian states like Punjab and Haryana, electricity for agriculture-related tasks is provided at no cost to farmers, usually at night, to ease off-peak daytime loads. This encourages the uncontrolled use of electric pumps, with farmers often leaving pumps running through the night, resulting in over irrigated farms and low ground water levels, not to mention all the wasted electricity.

One could argue that, with solar power, the problem could get worse. Since solar power is abundant in India, farmers could feel even less obligated to monitor the use of solar pumps, leading to even lower groundwater levels.

But what if it doesn’t? Savvy farmers won’t take long to realize that they have the option of selling their surplus solar electricity to the grid at good rates. That means they’d think twice before pumping up groundwater unnecessarily.

The state of Karnataka is banking on just that with its “Surya Raitha” scheme. The state electric utility announced a tariff of almost 18 U.S. cents per unit for every unit of solar power sent to the grid.  Currently, 300 farmers are piloting this approach and have turned in their traditional diesel-run pumps voluntarily. The scheme is being monitored to understand if it works or not.

Also, a World Bank irrigation project in West Bengal is exploring a service contract model for solar pumps, where payments are made to the contractor depending on the amount of water delivered from the pumps. This can be monitored through inexpensive GPRS and remote sensing technologies. This business model can help put a price on the use of water and help maintain ground water levels if the government sets and enforces proper limits. The project is also looking at using solar pumps, small agro-mills and drying crops during non-irrigation season.

Aren’t costs to install and operate solar pumps prohibitive? 

Here is how the costs break down—the upfront cost of a solar pump (say 2 HP, equivalent to irrigating 5 acres of land) is about 10 times that of a conventional pump ($5,000 vs $500), despite a significant reduction in solar module prices (from $3 per watt in 2009 to less than $1 in 2015). Small and marginal farmers may not have the equity to buy solar pumps or the ability to raise debt from a commercial bank, since banks are still don’t consider solar pumps as "bankable technology."  

But one must think about the long-term returns. The cost of running a solar pump is virtually zero. It can pump water for at least 25 years with little overhead and management costs. The cost of power production from a diesel pump is around $0.30 per unit (compared to $0.15 for a solar pump) and the payback period is around 6-9 years. A solar pump is clearly the more viable option in the long run and once commercial and public banks in India start lending to install them, it could have a significant impact on the lives of farmers.

Is solar energy reliable in all seasons?

In many parts of India, there are 60-70 days in a year when weather conditions (clouds) prevent solar water pumps from working. But it rains a lot of those days, so irrigation may not be necessary then. That still leaves a few days where you might not see the sun, leaving about a 90% reliability factor for solar water pumping. But adding energy or water storage could offset that issue. Also, small land holdings reduce the applicability of larger solar pumps unless water brought up by using solar pumps can be shared among a group of farmers.

Are solar pumps environment friendly?

India uses more than 4 billion liters of diesel (13% of total diesel consumption in India) and around 85 million tons of coal per annum (19% of total coal consumption in India) to support water pumping for irrigation. If 50% of these diesel pumps were replaced with solar PV pump sets, diesel consumption could be reduced by about 225 million liters/year (7.5% of total diesel consumption in India).

Farmers tend to turn to the rain god—Indra—when all else fails. Perhaps they could give the sun god—Surya—a shot as well? Once solar pumps’ impact on groundwater levels and implementation are investigated and understood, I believe it can answer prayers and ease the lives of millions of farmers. 


Join the Conversation

Navratan Katariya
November 02, 2015

Well said and these are genuine areas for policy makers to consider. Private participation is a must and the quality of system needs to be good, even if there is a small premium to it. Just one correction: module prices are less than $0.5/Wp in 2015

Urvish Dave
November 03, 2015

Hello Amit,
Nice article. You mentioned in your article that .."Small and marginal farmers may not have the equity to buy solar pumps or the ability to raise debt from a commercial bank, since banks are still don’t consider solar pumps as "bankable technology....But one must think about the long-term returns.."
Most of the farmers don't have buying capacity for even a solar home lighting system or even solar lantern even though it costs around 5% of the 2 HP solar pump cost. Most of the time even the benefits of subsidy also never reaches to the end consumer.
Solar is definitely the solution...no doubt about that but no one will give a shot & even think at it unless it makes real economic sense. The government should think on this before announcing back to back what they so consider the "favorable solar policies & projects" which makes no economic sense presently.
I too am working as a consultant in solar sector across India since the inception of its first policy & yes the prices have come down to 70% from then, but still even for a common man in India going solar does not make much sense unless the payback is 4 years or less.
Along with bank making lending more accessible the government should also come up with some income tax benefits/credits (similar to ITC in US) for making rooftop solar more accessible to middle class.
The true beauty & benefits of solar lies if its accepted by common masses rather then just constructing utility scale solar projects and making it commercially viable and passing the incentives and benefits to the corporate. That's necessary too but in the process the rooftop solar arena and off-grid solar sector seems to be totally neglected.
Just income tax benefits coupled with more accessible lending through banks would see a good amount of rise in installation of small scale and off-grid solar projects.
And yes despite all the financial, policy & regulatory hurdles the consumer also needs to develop long term horizon. Even after having not so called a favorable solar rooftop policy & off-grid policy implementation environment in India, compared to the world we still have much better cost economics for rooftop & off-grid solar in India then most of the countries & yet witness less penetration of solar compared to other countries. I believe its more to do with the 'followers' attitude then the 'adopters' one among consumers too.
And as one of the reader on my blog commented - "The Indian solar story is like right there but not there. Something like "you can have your cake but not eat it" . The exterior seems very pretty but getting into the technicality has its own disadvantages . Making rooftop & off-grid a household name would simply require the government to push MNC's to take up the matter more seriously. Rural electrification projects across India need to be very carefully monitored in order to reap the benefits !!"
Overall, yes for the consumer now is the right time to go solar & as Mahatma Gandhi once said …”all the means of production of the elementary necessaries of life should remain in the control of the masses.”….& undoubtedly electricity is one of them !
Regards - Urvish Dave | Solar Consultant

March 16, 2016

Excellent !

Jerry Everett
April 04, 2016

Hi Amit,
This is my first visit on your website and I want to say thank you to google which redirects me on this important page.
Solar energy can be a big alternative of unrenewable energy especially in the country like india. Because we have less resources of energy.You have told the importance of energy.
Thanks a lot for such a nice information.
With Regards
Jerry Everett