India’s government wants to replace 26 million groundwater pumps for irrigation with more efficient pumps that run on solar power, in an effort to relieve farmers of high costs of diesel fuel. Diesel generators are commonly used when grid power is unavailable, a not uncommon occurrence. And the power used for pumping irrigation water is also one of the largest strains on the Indian power grid.
The initiative is expected to require $US 1.6 billion in investment in the next five years just to switch out the first 200 000 pumps, according to Bloomberg.
Pumping water is critical for Indian agriculture, which otherwise relies on seasonal rain. It's also very contentious—Indian farmers are currently drawing more water than is sustainable, removing about 212 million megaliters from the ground each year to irrigate about 35 million hectares.
One of the risks of switching to solar pumps, however, is that farmers may use even more water than they currently do with expensive diesel generators. To combat that unintended consequence, the farmers who accept the subsidies to purchase the solar water pumps must switch to drip irrigation. The state of Punjab is also offering subsidies for drip irrigation.
The government thinks the upside of solar pumps will outweigh the risks. “The potential is huge,” Tarun Kapoor, joint secretary at India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, told Bloomberg. “Irrigation pumps may be the single largest application for solar in the country.”
Falling prices of solar panels means that the payback for a solar water pump system is about one to four years, Ajay Coel, CEO of Tata Power Solar Systems, told Bloomberg. Some state governments in India are subsidizing most of the cost of the systems because it helps eliminate the billions of dollars in annual farm diesel subsidies that go to farmers.
Agriculture isn’t the only sector that the government is trying to wean off of heavily subsidized diesel. Mandates will require 75 percent of rural and 33 percent of urban telecom towers to run on renewables by 2020.
Solar powered “water ATMs” are also bringing clean water to rural India. All of this activity is part of why India is expected to be the fifth largest market for solar PV by 2015. It is not just small, rural projects to supplant diesel, either. India has plans for a 4-gigawatt solar PV plant, which would nearly triple the country’s solar capacity and be the largest in the world.