18 Jul 2016 19:14 IST

Solarisation of Indian agriculture

In just one year, the number of solar pumps could increase from 35,000 to 10 lakh

There comes a time when things that were supposed to happen a long time ago, suddenly start happening. An incident triggers a chain reaction, and bingo! The wheels are set in motion.

For instance, it has been known for a very long time that LED bulbs consume lesser electricity than conventional bulbs. So much lesser in fact, that even if you have to pay, say, 10 times more for an LED bulb than a ‘regular’ one, you will get back your money pretty soon. The savings on electricity bills, then, are all yours to keep.

And yet, nobody bought the LEDs. Why? Were people so gormless so as to not recognise a good economic proposition?

Not really. The problem, in fact, was one of upfront payment. Most people, particularly those financially challenged, generally baulk from digging deep into their wallets and paying cheerfully on the promise of savings later. Which is why the LED adoption was not taking off.

Until (EESL) came along.

It offered to give the bulbs practically free of cost to households, and deduct the costs from electricity bills. Those of you who have been following these columns would know that the model became a roaring success.

Something very similar is on the cusp of happening.

Pumping solar energy

The water pumps our farmers use to irrigate fields are energy guzzlers. Since farmers get free electricity, they never bothered much about efficient pumps.

The burden of providing free power to farmers has always been undertaken by the state exchequer. With the result that today, State-owned electricity distribution companies have run up losses of ₹4 lakh crore — they need to pay back loans of about ₹4.5 lakh crore.

Now, the discoms are expected to (continue to) give free power to farmers (and cheap power to schools and colleges, temples, churches and mosques, poor households and…). And governments reimburse only a part of the losses.

So what’s the way out?

Solar!

The most obvious way out of the financial mess is to pluck out all the irrigation pumps that run on government-supplied electricity or diesel and replace them with solar-powered pumps.

Not only will electricity consumption come down to zero, these pumps can sometimes power the farmers’ houses as well!

There are around 20.7 million irrigation pumps that draw power from the grid and another 7 million that run on diesel. Now, imagine replacing them all with solar-powered pumps.

It’s a win-win situation for both — State governments can rake up huge savings in terms of subsidies, and farmers too get uninterrupted power supply. Lives go on just like before.

Then, why isn’t this happening?

Well, the same reason LEDs didn’t take off.

A conventional agricultural pump costs between ₹15,000 and ₹20,000. A solar pump of an equivalent capacity costs ₹3 lakh! Imagine telling farmers to invest ₹3 lakh upfront. Most won’t be able to afford even a tenth of it.

It is then up to the State (or central) government to replace the energy-hungry pumps of today with benign solar-powered ones. But they don’t have money either. That is where the matter had been standing stuck.

Now, the scales have tipped and are tilting favourably.

To the rescue!

EESL has again jumped into the act. Backed by rich parents (four public sector power companies) the firm, after its successful experiment with LED lamps, is now trying to replicate the model in solarising agricultural pumps.

Up till now, under a variety of subsidy schemes offered by the State and central governments, some 35,000 grid-powered agri pumps have been replaced by solar.

But now, EESL will buy the pumps through four tenders — 1.5 lakh for Andhra Pradesh, 5 lakh for Maharasthra, 1 lakh for Karnataka and 3 lakh for Rajasthan, making in all, 10.5 lakh pumps — and give them to farmers.

Consequently, State governments can avoid giving free power to these pumps, and instead, sell the power to paying customers and make money. The State government can pay EESL in instalments, over time.

Show me the money

The problematic question here is money: where will EESL get money to buy all the pumps?

This is where tipping points pop up on the scene. EESL is a company promoted by four large public sector power companies — NTPC, REC, PGCIL and PFC. With their backing, it will be easier for EESL to raise money from banks. Moreover, with EESL itself being government-owned, the State governments will have a better comfort-level in dealing with it.

Thus, in just one year, the number of solar pumps could increase from 35,000 to 10 lakh… and this is only for starters. Solarisation of agriculture is just beginning to happen.

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