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Solar Sharing- a Power-Agro Hybrid: Alleviating Poverty in India

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Farmers can join hands in a cooperative model to harness solar energy for watering their fields and other purposes and selling surplus power to the grid.

Farmers tend to turn to the rain god—Indra—when all else fails. Perhaps they could give the sun god—Surya—a shot as well? Farmers can join hands in a cooperative model to harness solar energy for watering their fields and other purposes and selling surplus power to the grid.

Even today much of our country’s hinterland does not have access to electricity. Though, Governments are working hard to provide connectivity through centralised electricity grids, this solution is not only capital intensive but also less environmentally friendly. In contrast to this, the small scale decentralised off grid solutions, especially installation of solar power can meet the needs with provision of reliable power supply.

Realising the importance of solar power, our Hon’ble Prime Minister has given the ambitious target of achieving 100 GW by the year 2022. The Government of India has set a detail road map to achieve this through grid connected roof top of 40 GW and the medium decentralised off grid connection of 60 GW.

As we pride ourselves on accomplishing the feat of achieving 10 GW solar capacity on 10th March 2017, with much of the progress centred around establishment of grid connected solar systems, it would be noteworthy that China installed 34 GW solar capacity in 2016 alone in comparison to the 6.8 GW capacity installed by India in FY17 well short of the 12 GW target. In this context the contribution of Off- grid solar power systems to our agro economy in general and rural economy in particular shall prove useful.

Off grid solar power systems

For Solar systems installed on rooftops of residential, commercial, institutional & industrial buildings, Electricity generated could be fed into the grid at regulated feed-in tariffs or used for self consumption with net-metering approach. As the off grid systems utilise the solar energy at decentralised household or village level, these entail lesser investment.

Few off-grid power initiatives successfully tried out in many parts of the country

- Solar Home Systems with solar panels to generate power for individual homes devoid of power,
- Utilization of un-cultivable farm land for setting up of solar Power Plant
- Solar irrigation pumps
- Cheap solar lanterns,
- Solar powered refrigeration systems in Primary Health Centres can store the lifesaving medicines in the countryside,
- Solar driers for agricultural processing and industrial use,

Existing Energy Agriculture model profligate

India with as much as more than 65% population residing in rural areas with half of them engaged in primary activities, the development model for energy access for these much not only be inclusive and sustainable but also remunerative.

To reduce dependence on the monsoons, India’s farmers have taken electricity connections and installed diesel pump sets for irrigation. Not surprisingly, perhaps, up to 20% of all the electricity used in India is for agriculture, mostly for irrigation. In some states, this can account for as much as 30-50% of all the electricity used in the state.

There are many states where power for agricultural purposes is highly subsidized, and this, combined with an unreliable supply of electricity, often causes farmers to leave their pumps on all the time. This wastes both electricity and water, with too much energy being used and too much groundwater being extracted, often way more water than needed.

Since more than half of India’s cultivated land is yet to be irrigated, a business-as-usual scenario will lead to a huge rise in India’s energy needs for agriculture alone.

Reinvigorating our rural economy

In order to achieve the target for off grid solar systems we shall require the skilled manpower and barefoot technicians in large numbers in rural areas to provide maintenance and services for installed systems. The potential of creating 1 million green jobs to cater to the needs of solar energy as technicians will regenerate the rural economy. The skill development programme launched by Government of India when linked to building the capacities of rural youth for harnessing the potentialities offered by solar energy can provide livelihood opportunities and sustained source of income.

40-50 farmers in a village can join hands to create a solar cooperative to harness solar energy for watering their fields and other purposes and selling surplus power to the grid. It serves as a viable business model for farmers who wish to harvest solar energy and add to their agricultural incomes. These have the potential to resolve the power crisis as well as provide energy and food security to the farming community.

Synergy between Solar power and Agriculture for Indian agro-economy

- Savings in transmission and distribution losses
- Low gestation time
- No requirement of additional land
- Improvement of tail-end grid voltages and reduction in system congestion with higher self consumption of solar electricity
- Local employment generation
- Reduction of power bill by supplying surplus electricity to local electricity supplier

SOLAR SHARING (JAPAN)

Until recently, solar power plants were restricted or banned from being built on active farmland. However, farmers in Japan generate solar electricity while growing crops on the same farmland termed as solar sharing or Double Cropping.

Pic 1: Solar sharing farm in Japan 

 

It is well known that the rate of photosynthesis increases as the irradiance level is increased; however at one point, any further increase in the amount of light that strikes the plant does not cause any increase to the rate of photosynthesis triggering the need to combine PV systems and farming.

The PV system can also provide shade for cattle or sheep to rest underneath and because of higher soil moisture level, the shading will reduce irrigation expenses.

Solar Farming Cooperatives turning Agriculture Sustainable and remunerative

Solar power, is uninterrupted, predictable, available during daytime, can be ‘grown’ without any seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation or backbreaking labour. The Farmers world wide particularly in Japan and Europe are experimenting with a range of high-value crops like spinach, carrots, garlic, beet and a few medicinal plants that grow well under panels.

However, these hybrid models deserve a better feed-in tariff than what is being given now for solar power plants or even roof-top installations. Megawatt (MW) scale solar plants require large public investments in transmission, whereas these micro-grids shall be erected by farmers at their own expense.

Roof-top solar plants, too, would probably only end up depriving Distribution Companies (DISCOMS) of revenue from their highest-paying consumer segments. These will liberate the DISCOMS and state governments from debilitating farm power subsidies.

DISCOMS are against the prospect of net-metering, billing and paying individual farmers supplying small marketable surplus of solar power as it escalates their transaction and vigilance costs. It will be the work of Solar Farming Cooperatives to meter the equipmetns and pay each member based on the power evacuated by him/her.

The existing regime of electricity subsidies mutes farmers’ incentive to conserve both power and water. By weaning them off grid power, farmers are being helped to make money from conserving energy and water. Moreover, metering energy will make it possible for measuring water withdrawals, to manage a scarce natural resource better.

With proper promotion, these Hybrid models could have the kind of impact on small farmer livelihood systems that the Amul-type dairy cooperatives have had in many parts of India.
Besides, there is the promise of making irrigation climate-smart. Using electricity and diesel in groundwater irrigation produces massive carbon emissions.

Solarising the groundwater economy could eliminate this huge carbon-footprint, reducing the carbon-intensity of the country’s economic growth. These small experiments can go a long way in reconfiguring our power economy, our groundwater economy and our agrarian livelihoods.

Contributed by: Abhinav Jindal,
Senior Manager (Energy Efficiency Management Group), NTPC Ltd.

Author Details : He has over 13 yrs experience in NTPC having worked in several domains namely, Corporate Planning, Project Monitoring, Corporate Commercial wherein he interfaced with several agencies like Regulatory Commissions, System Operators, Customers for optimum utilisation of power and its pricing.

He is an expert on energy economics having presented papers in O & M and IEEMA conference, Power Gen Asia 2017 and plans to pursue higher research in Energy Economics.

He is a recipient of Karamveer Puraskar and Karamveer Fellowship 2012 for his contribution to energy awareness and social consciousness. He is also an avid quizzer and has won several business quizzes including Ignited Minds Business Quiz 2016.

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