How Solar Can Save India’s Farmers

Water pumps powered by the sun could solve a host of problems for rural farmers and the nation’s power grid

(David Ferris)

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Converting all of India’s electric water pumps to solar would appear to make imminent sense, but the economic argument for solar is even more compelling for diesel-powered pumps. Solar-powered water pumps, which include a power source and expensive electronics, currently cost upwards of $6,000, whereas a pump that runs on electricity or diesel can be had for as little as $500. That’s an enormous difference in a country with a per capita yearly income of only $1,200. Farmers who get their electricity for free would probably rather save their money and risk the cobras. But for the 7 million diesel-using farmers like Kant, most of whom have no electrical connection and have had no choice but diesel pumps, they can spend up to 35 or 40 percent of their income on diesel. And that amount is rising because the country is phasing out its subsidy on the fuel. 

“The costs of running a diesel pump are very high,” said a grizzled neighbor of Kant’s, who went by the sole name of Ayodhya. As we watched water tumble onto his field from his solar-powered pumpset, Ayodhya explained, “for a farmer who owns one bigha of land [about 70 percent of an acre], the diesel pump has to be run four hours a day. The pump consumes two liters of diesel an hour. That is 320 rupees [U.S. $5.55] per hour.”  

Energy subsidies, however, aren’t necessarily going away -- they’re instead moving toward solar. "We see a huge market for solar pumps in India," said G. Prasad, head of off-grid solar projects for the Indian Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, which is offering to pick up 30 percent of the cost of solar pumpsets. Ten states have also added their own subsidies. Rural energy independence appeals to local politicians who can steer money to their constituents, as well as ministerial bean counters who see a potential for savings. KPMG estimates that if the government purchased 100,000 solar pumps, India could save $53 million a year in diesel imports.

The prospect of government largesse, combined with millions of potential customers, has global solar and pump manufacturers, from SunEdison to Germany’s Lorentz to Denmark’s Grundfos, running toward the Indian market. Kant’s pump was installed by Claro Energy, an Indian startup that is competing with the big multinationals. “It’s a tremendous opportunity because of the sheer size of the country, the sheer size of the population,” said Melanie Natarajan, head of Asia-Pacific water operations for Franklin Electric, an American pump maker.

Ravi Kant couldn’t be happier with his solar-powered pump -- and not just because subsidies have driven his power costs down to zero. Instead of wrestling with a diesel-powered pump in front of his cows, he adjusts the panels a few times a day to point them toward the sun, and every few days washes the dust off. “We can grow a third crop because of the solar pumps. We grow either dal or maize. Our annual income is up by about 20,000 rupees [U.S. $347] per year,” he said.

Solar panels have been known to work for two decades and more. If they do, the blue-tinted solar panels will empower another generation – Kant’s children -- to water their own crops with sunshine. 

Sanjoy Sanyal contributed to the reporting of this story.

Disclaimer:  Pashupathy Gopalan is a distant cousin by marriage of the writer.


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