There has been intense effort to promote solar based irrigation in India. Maharashtra announced plans to replace half a million electric pumps with solar-powered agriculture pumps over the next five years. Other states, including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Telangana, have ongoing programmes or have planned similar steps. The central government wants to give capital subsidies for 100,000 solar pumps in five years.
Potential of solar based irrigation in India:
1. It has become increasingly challenging to provide affordable irrigation services through conventional technologies, both from fiscal and environmental perspectives
2. The agriculture power subsidy burden was close to Rs 67,000 crore in 2013-14 and has been rising steadily. Despite such high government expenditures, farmers have to contend with unreliable and poor quality power supply.
3. Solar pumps could help fill irrigation gaps, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and help farmers adapt to climate change impacts
The problems in promoting solar based irrigation in India are:
1. High investment cost acts as a barrier for farmers. They are 10 times as costly as diesel pumps
2. Central and state subsidies as high as 90 per cent of the capital cost are offered. Such a high subsidy rate would be fiscally unsustainable if solar pumps had to be deployed at scale.
3. There are concerns around over-exploitation of groundwater, if pumps have zero or low operational costs
4. With limited market penetration currently, spurious and poor quality products could adversely affect consumer confidence
The steps needed for faster and more effective deployment of Solar Based Irrigation in India are:
1. Quality controls and performance benchmarks are urgently needed, allowing competent manufacturers and service providers to compete
2. Faster penetration of drip irrigation technology to ensure that load on solar pumps is reduced and concerns relating to overuse of groundwater mitigated
3. Instead of subsidizing electric pumps, state governments could divert the same resources as upfront solar pump subsidies. They could provide capital subsidies or interest rate subsidies or both to encourage the uptake of solar pumps on a large scale
4. Partnership with private players who are working to make solar pumps accessible to small and marginal farmers such as ClaroEnergy which rents out mobile solar pumps is required
5. Tying the subsidies for solar pumps to micro-irrigation and water harvesting or even integrating with the grid (along with net metering) is another solution. Such measures could reduce water consumption or give farmers an alternative source of income.