Powering Irrigation: Indian farmers turn to solar pumps and controllers

Indian farmers turn to solar pumps and controllers

By Prateek Singhal, Co-founder and COO, Ecozen Solutions

India has no dearth of sunlight, and it is estimated that most parts of the country get about 4-7 kWh of solar energy, of the nearly 5,000 trillion kWh of the total solar energy that is received across the co­untry’s geographical area.

Solar energy is at the forefront of the co­untry’s transition to­war­ds renewable energy and is in line with the commitments ma­de by our prime mini­ster at COP26, which include growing en­er­gy production to 500 GW from sour­ces other than fossil fuels by 2030 and achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2070. Various incentives and subsidies fr­om the government have facilitated further ad­option of solar energy across the country.

The government is driving the indigenous development of solar power, with the in­tention of reducing the consumption of fossil fuels. Advanced cell chemistries are being encouraged to bring down the dependency on other countries for raw ma­terials and components. Besides, it is helping introduce battery technologies that utilise raw materials available in abundance on our domestic shores. This will bo­de very well for solar energy systems as more efficient and sustainable battery-based energy storage technologies will improve the usability of renewable power all year around.

At this year’s COP27 that was held in Egypt, the Indian government unveiled its plan of action to achieve these targets with­in the committed timelines. In his ad­d­ress to the United Nations Country Te­am, the Union Minister of Environment, Fo­r­e­st and Climate Change, Bhupender Yadav said that agriculture is a segment that will need “adaptation and building climate resilience”.

Agriculture, along with its ancillary sectors, continues to be a significant contributor to India’s economy. In 2021-2022, the contribution of agriculture and its allied se­ctors towards the country’s gross value added stood at 18.8 per cent.

With such a substantial contribution to­wards the country’s GDP, the government continues to promote agriculture by creating conducive regulatory and policy initiatives designed to grow the sector. In line with the country’s ongoing transition to­wards renewable energy, the governme­nt is keen to solarise agriculture as well.

India’s landmass covers 3,287,263 squa­re km, of which only 34.3 per cent of the arable land is currently irrigated. Although there has been a rampant increase in ac­cessibility to electricity, there are still many rural parts of the country that have little or no connectivity to the grid. In such places, farmers have to either make do with erratic electric supply to power irrigation pum­ps or rely solely on diesel-burning pump­sets. In fact, as per some repo­rts, 21 million pumps are connected to the primarily fossil fuel-based grid and 8.8 million pumps run on diesel.

However, in the past five years, about 25,000 solar pumps have been put into ser­vice, and the number continues to gr­ow. This has been made possible through the KUSUM scheme introduced by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, which envisions adding 25,750 MW of renewable en­ergy capacity with an outlay of Rs 344,220 million. Consisting of three distinct eleme­nts, this initiative covers ev­erything from de­centralised ground-mo­unted solar plan­ts, 1,750 million solar pu­m­ps for agriculture, to powering 1 million pu­mps that are connected to the grid th­rough electricity generated by solar energy.

Although the KUSUM scheme covers the solarisation of pumps that are already connected to the grid, electric distribution companies are quickly realising that providing farmers with decentralised solar pumps is more cost-effective and quicker to implement when compared to the electrification of farms.

By virtue of the rapid electrification that is currently underway across the country, 99 per cent of rural India now has access to power. However, 60-70 per cent of farms are located about 5 km away from the village houses and getting electricity to these fields would incur a massive investment in the requisite infrastructure. This is because the setting up of electric poles, laying of cables and other such equipment requires permissions from various regulatory bodies, land acquisition, and capital expenditure. In addition, discoms will face transmission and distribution lo­ss­es, which are further compounded by the subsidised rates of power in rural are­as. Solar pumps, being a decentralised solution, are the answer to this conundr­um and their adoption is gaining momentum, all thanks to the unique and cost-effective solution that they provide to all concerned stakeholders.

Smart controllers, which are the brain of these irrigation systems, are another reason why the demand for solar pumps am­ong farmers is growing steadily. Equip­ped with the latest technologies like embedded artificial intelligence (AI), advanced motor controls and up-to-the-minute re­mo­te monitoring facilitated through 4G net­work connectivity, these controllers en­able farmers to operate their pumps th­rou­gh a mobile app and allow them to even schedule their operation in advance. Although the mobile app makes it possible for farmers to request for maintenance of their pumps as per the specified schedule, some controllers also allow pump manufacturers to update their software over the air and undertake predictive analytics to detect issues before they cause failures. This reduces downtime for the pu­mps and ensures that the system is always running at optimum levels with current software versions. One-click integration with third-party systems for sm­oo­th data transfer is also made possible by these hi-tech controllers.

As this technology evolves, smart controllers will become smarter, with advan­ces in AI and internet of things facilitating rapid improvement in their capabilities. The farmers themselves are getting more and more conversant with technology and will soon be able to carry out diagnostics on their own via the mobile app, instead of relying solely on the manufacturers. Smart controllers are also increasing the efficiency of thermal energy usage and will en­able farmers to do more with the installed solar energy systems.

Parallels in the adoption trajectory of solar pumps and controllers can be drawn from that of tractors in India. To drive the adoption of tractors, the government had introduced subsidies to entice farmers to purchase them. However, when various ancillary implements and fitments like threshers and pumps that could be run off tractors began to be introduced, the scope of their usability grew and farmers began to purchase them even after they were weaned off subsidies simply because th­ey could now be used for much more than mere tilling.

For now, solar controllers are being used to run solar pumps, but as they get sm­arter, they will go on to power other equipment like mechanised farm implements, lights and cold rooms. Tasks like trickle-charging of battery-operated equipment such as weed-wackers, tillers and even electric tractors can be done by the same controllers. When this happens, the full extent of their versatility will become ap­parent amongst farmers and then, like with tractors, their purchase will be driven by their value and usability rather than being just subsidy and incentive driven.