How solar energy can catalyse India’s agricultural energy transition

Updated: May 03, 2019 2:50 PM

To put things in perspective, an area that could be irrigated in 24 hours, ends up taking almost 4-5 nights to irrigate completely.

The plant requires around five acres of land and a single 1 MW plant can power around 350, 5-HP pumps.

By Venkatesh Dwivedi  

The current energy consumption pattern of India’s agricultural sector is mired in inefficiency. Despite farmers being dependent on the sun for most farming activities, irrigation usually happens quite late at night. This is due to the practice of supplying subsidised electricity to farmers during the midnight hours.

Done with the intent of reducing the strain on the grid, owing to the daytime loads, the practice inadvertently leads to increased water and energy wastage, as the pumps run throughout the night. Therefore, the energy wastage is compounded further, with disruption in farm yields and significant delays in irrigation of farms. To put things in perspective, an area that could be irrigated in 24 hours, ends up taking almost 4-5 nights to irrigate completely.

India’s agricultural sector is responsible for the consumption of over 18% of overall national electricity usage. However, its contribution to the GDP in just over 5%. This discrepancy has been prevalent since the 1970s, when the Green Revolution was on. Well-intentioned reforms like subsidised electricity supply have had the adverse effect of increasing the energy strain even further. Meant to alleviate the stress on farmers, low-tariffed or free-of-cost electricity has instead led to mounting losses for the distribution companies (discoms), exacerbated further due to high transmission losses. Electricity theft has emerged as another area of concern and has been on the rise due to non-metered electricity usage in the agricultural sector.

The solution, however, is not to curtail the power access to the agricultural sector, as it employs a large part of the population and is a key cog in India’s growth engine. We need to provide the requisite energy to the sector, albeit in a more sustained manner. With the agricultural sector’s electricity demand set to double over the next decade owing to rising irrigation demand for larger cropped areas, newer crop varieties and rising mechanisation, there is a need for introducing focused measures. The continued agricultural subsidies will lead to piling losses for discoms, along with disruption of the entire energy value chain.

The challenge here is two-pronged. First, we must ensure farms receive uninterrupted electricity supply during daytime. Second, we need to prevent the rising electricity demand from the agricultural sector to bleed discoms further. Solar energy has long been the beacon of India’s energy transition and can provide a greener energy avenue for the agricultural sector.

The first step towards the adoption of solar energy is solar agri-feeders installed by discoms to transmit energy to farms. A solar agri-feeder is a 1-10 MW community-scale solar power plant and is linked to a substation. The plant requires around five acres of land and a single 1 MW plant can power around 350, 5-HP pumps. These agri-feeders can provide largely uninterrupted and sustainable 8-10 hours of electricity during the day.

It also obviates installation, maintenance and operation costs for farmers. Additionally, discoms can support farms when the power supply from the feeders is low due to sporadic sunlight, and can even use excess electricity produced by the feeders in case of low irrigation demand.

Thus, solar agri-feeders have unparalleled utility for the agricultural sector. A shining example is the solar substations of the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Limited (MSEDCL), which are pegged to generate 200 MW of clean energy in a year, which can then be infused into the grid at attractive tariffs via long-term power purchase agreements.

There are many advantages of solar agri-feeders. These enable reduction of agricultural subsidy and do not require capital subsidies of their own, from the government. These also offer remarkable scalability, as a large number of small solar power plants can be swiftly installed in the open or unused land of substations across the country. These feeders also eliminate the need for significant infrastructural costs, due to new large transmission lines, which is a challenge faced by large-scale wind and solar deployments.

This results in affordable and sustained power supply for the agricultural sector during the day, aided by an easy-to-implement design for setting up the feeders.
Discoms benefit immensely from this approach, as the mounting losses from agri-electricity subsidies are mitigated to an extent, which enables in reducing overall losses.

Lower agricultural demands from discoms also have the domino effect of enhancing energy access and affordability for industrial and commercial use. This is due to decreased dependence of discoms on the higher tariffs imposed on the industrial sector. India’s 2 crore electric and 75 lakh diesel irrigation pumps contribute 26 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gas, which is 5% of the nation’s total emissions. Solar agri-feeders can help alleviate this considerably.

The remarkable utility and viability of solar farm feeders is undeniable and has definite relevance in the government’s roster of energy sector interventions such as smart metering, renewables proliferation, energy-efficient pumps, and pan-India energy access.

The author is Director (Projects),EESL

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