Six months in a year, solar pumps remain idle in Bundelkhand. Why not connect them to the grid?
The solar revolution in the agriculture sector of Mahoba, Bundelkhand is picking up, but the solar pumps often remain out of use for almost half a year. Connecting these solar pumps to the grid can help evacuate electricity in the lean season and also provide an additional income source to the farmers via power tariff.
Aishwarya Tripathi 2 Jun 2023 7:46 AM GMT
Mahoba, Uttar Pradesh
On a blistering afternoon in mid-April, with temperatures above 40 degree Celsius, gigantic solar panel holders erected in the agricultural fields of Jaitpur block of Mahoba, Uttar Pradesh lie empty. The glass-covered panels, which convert the sun's energy into electricity and help pump out groundwater for irrigation, are conspicuous by their absence.
One such field with naked panel holders belongs to Rajendra Tiwari, who lives three kilometres from the field where the solar irrigation pumpset has been installed in Mahua Bhand village.
In April, when the groundwater levels fall in the summer season, and the 25-year-old farmer doesn’t have any crop to sow, he loads his solar panels onto a lorry and carries them home for safe-keeping.
“Who will look after the palates (solar panels) when they aren’t in use?” quipped Tiwari, citing he had invested Rs 110,000 to get a 5 horsepower solar pump. Better safe than sorry seems to be his mantra, and that of several other farmers in Mahoba district of Bundelkhand.
The central government, under its PM-KUSUM (Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan) scheme, has been popularising the use of solar irrigation pumps (SIP) to replace the use of diesel pumpsets in the agriculture sector. Mahoba district has registered the installation of 1,304 solar-powered agricultural pumps since the launch of PM-KUSUM in 2019 — the highest amongst the seven districts of drought-prone Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh.
But in most of the cases, for almost six months in a year, these solar pumpsets lie idle between April and September. April and May are when the fields are left fallow to prepare them for the upcoming kharif season. And, from June to September the monsoon rainfall helps irrigate the fields. Solar irrigation pumps are not needed in all these months.
Thirteen kilometres away from the Mahua Bhand village lies Lamora village. Mahendra Kumar Raikuar is waiting to harvest moong (lentil) from his five bigha land, and then to unscrew the solar panels from the iron stands and carry them on his head to his house, half-a kilometre away.
Mahendra informed that he had installed a three horsepower solar pump in March 2019 and ever since the 32-year-old farmer has been following the ordeal of screwing and unscrewing solar panels, which requires muscle-power of his entire family of five.
“The fasal after the moong will be rain-irrigated and these panels are of no use then. When they aren’t being used then why take the tension of their security?” he told Gaon Connection.
The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has also observed that “the Solar Photovoltaic pumping system deployed at huge cost to the farmer and the exchequer for the Government is currently utilised only for half of the days in a year (around 150 days per year) on an average.”
Solar irrigation pumpsets under the KUSUM scheme have a 60 per cent subsidy in Uttar Pradesh (30 per cent each from the Centre and state) and the rest of the amount is paid by the beneficiary.
Considering 1,304 solar pumpsets in Mahoba, most of which are 3 horsepower pumps — with a government subsidy of Rs 116,710 per farmer, and 5 horsepower pumps — with a Rs 163,882 subsidy per farmer, at least Rs 15 crore is being disbursed by the state and central government as subsidies. This is the amount disbursed to less than one per cent of the 159,056 registered farmers in Mahoba.
But because for six months in a year, these subsidised solar pumpsets are not used, it is a huge waste of the resources considering that during the lean farming season, the electricity generated by the solar panels of these pumpsets can be fed into the grid, or put to some other use locally. Some states such as Gujarat are already doing that.
A double loss
“I don’t think that a solar pump being idle is entirely a bad thing because if you are pumping groundwater throughout the year, it’s bad for water sustainability,” said Abhishek Jain, Fellow and Director – Powering Livelihoods, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), New Delhi.
“But the solar panels lying idle is quite another thing. Because, you have a resource which can generate power but you are not tapping into it,” he pointed out.
Swami Prasad, a farmer in Lamora, who also keeps his solar panels idle for half a year, wanted to know how best to utilise the palates for an additional income. He runs the Jan Suvidha Kendra in his village, and is a point of information for other farmers.
“It could be really useful if the government could tell us how we can utilise the panels when the pump is not needed for irrigation,” he told Gaon Connection. “I have heard that the panels can be used for subsidiary agricultural tasks like threshing and feed cutting. But I don’t know how to go about that,” he added.
Laxmi Devi of Tindouli village had similar concerns. Her family has invested Rs 104,000 for a 5 horsepower solar pumpset, to irrigate their 45 bighas of land. “We depend on rainfall for irrigating the kharif crops. Solar pump is of use during the monsoon; we use it in the rabi season,” she told Gaon Connection.
Laxmi Devi went on to add that in order to fully utilise their solar pump, her family had started cultivating sugarcane, as groundwater can be extracted freely using the solar pumpset. This is worrisome news as sugarcane is a water-guzzling crop and 80 per cent of its water requirement is met through groundwater. As reported in 2022, Mahoba extracts 91.91 per cent of its available extractable groundwater, and falls under water stressed zone.
According to Abhishek Jain of CEEW, the Government of India is attempting to solve the problem of under-utilised solar irrigation pumpsets by promoting Universal Solar Power Controllers.
Universal Solar Power Controllers is a device which will convert solar energy into electricity and feed it with its multiple output cables to a machine like a thresher or solar refrigerator. “The controllers should be able to perform several other tasks for agricultural and other needs of a farmer,” he said.
Shilp Verma, Senior Researcher, Water-Energy-Food Policy at International Water Management Institute (IWMI) emphasised that “on-grid connection of solar PV systems is the only long-term solution to tap into their complete potential.”
In Gujarat, IWMI piloted a model of solarization called SPaRC (Solar Power as Remunerative Crop). Under this initiative, farmers not only got solar pumps but were also organised into a cooperative which got into a power purchase agreement with the local electricity utility.
“In the case of these grid-connected solar pumps, the farmers can feed the surplus power to the grid and earn an income out of it,” Verma said about the year-round utilisation of solar pumps.
The findings from Dhundi village in central Gujarat where SPaRC was adopted suggest that “as soon as evacuation of surplus energy to the grid began in May 2016, the energy use in pumping began declining.”
“The Government of Gujarat took cognisance of this model and started Suryashakti Kisan Yojana (SKY), broadly inspired by SPaRC,” Verma told Gaon Connection.
Gujarat’s SKY Scheme
Under the SKY scheme, the farmers could feed the excess power produced through the solar PV system into the grid and under an agreement of 25 years, earn Rs 7 per unit of electricity for the first seven years, and Rs 3.5 for the next 18 years.
Verma pointed out that “if a system is installed, where the only use of the energy produced is pumping groundwater, then there might be more pumping than required.” This is what is happening with solar pumpsets in Mahoba, Uttar Pradesh.
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“An attractive power purchase guarantee for farmers and timely payments are crucial to build the confidence amongst them to adopt a grid-connected model for surplus income, rather than selling irrigation water,” Verma added.
Abhishek Jain of CEEW agreed that one way to fully utilise the solar photovoltaic system could be to feed the power to the grid, in the months the solar panels lie idle.
“But if the grid was there in the first place then why do we put the solar panels or the solar pump?” he questioned.
Jain asserted that it doesn’t make sense for the state government to provide subsidised solar power in electricity deprived areas, as well as invest funds into extending a grid in the same area.
Ashok Shrivastava, Senior Project Manager at Uttar Pradesh Non-Conventional Energy Development Agency(UPNEDA) emphasised that the core purpose of Component B of PM-KUSUM is to replace diesel motors with solar-powered pumps.
“It is challenging to get these motors (solar pumps under Component B) grid connected because mostly it is to target remote villages where there is no grid availability. It is not feasible to provide grids and distribution lines in all these areas,” he told Gaon Connection.
In a recently conducted seminar on ‘Powering Livelihoods’ by CEEW and Villgro, decentralised renewable energy models were exhibited and discussed at length as a livelihood solution. Such decentralised solar PV (photovoltaic) systems can be useful in days when the farmer does not need to pump water for irrigation.
Solar dryers is one such decentralised use of solar photovoltaic systems which allows farmers to dehydrate their vegetables and reduce losses incurred due to low market prices or poor shelf life of fresh vegetables.
In Odisha, Kuni Dehury, a tussar silk reeler has replaced traditional and electricity-dependent methods with a solar-powered machine. Akli said that she was earning eight times more now. In tribal areas like hers, access to uninterrupted electricity is a challenge, which affects livelihoods and income.
“Non-utilisation of solar panels is a problem. In cases where farmers remove the panels and store it in their home to avoid theft issues in the off-seasons, there is a maintenance burden as well,” said Suresh Kumar Singh, Additional Director Agriculture and Nodal Officer for PM-KUSUM in Uttar Pradesh. But the Universal Solar Power Controller is not seeing much traction in Uttar Pradesh, the official added.
“The whole system needs an additional investment between Rs 50,000 and 70,000, which isn’t subsidised. It is a huge amount for a farmer who has already invested in a solar pump,” said the official.