Solar Agricultural Feeders Are Changing the Game for Indian Farmers

Farmers say they have to risk their lives to water crops at midnight
The Hindu Business Line
Maharashtra, India
Solar Agricultural Feeders Are Changing the Game for Indian Farmers

As it turns dark, farmers in the remote Hasnabad village in the Beed district of Marathwada region in Maharashtra are under pressure. It’s time to irrigate farmland as the power supply to agricultural water pumps starts only after midnight. Farmers have to walk miles in the dark on dusty tracks surrounded by weeds and bushes to switch on the power supply to pumps. Many of them have been seriously injured in wild boar attacks, but they have to risk their lives every night so that their crop survives

But it is not just Hasnabad. Last month 17 farmers lost their lives due to attacks by tigers in the Chandrapur district in the Vidarbha region according to District Guardian Minister Vijay Wadettiwar who has asked the State Power Minister Nitin Raut to provide power supply to agricultural pumps in Chandrapur during day time to save the lives of farmers. The district houses a tiger reserve spread over 1,727 sq km including Tadoba National Park.

In Pune’s Junnar region farmers encounter leopards almost every time they go to their fields while their counterparts in Wakalwadi in Satara are struggling to save themselves from Russell’s Vipers and cobras in the fields. Electricity-powered agriculture pump-sets are key for farming, but the provision of power to agriculture is a disputed issue. “We know that agriculture is the last priority on any government’s agenda. That’s why we get power supply only during nights,” says farmer Vilas Nakhate. While the government is keeping records of farmer suicides, the number of farmers succumbing to attacks by wild animals, electrocution, and accidents goes unreported.

Daytime power supply

“Solar power offers some hope by way of providing electricity supply during the day time, which is convenient to the farmers. The Discom also finds it attractive since it reduces the burden to allocate costly generation capacity for agriculture,” states a report titled Understanding the Electricity, Water and Agriculture Linkages published by Pune-based Prayas (Energy Group) in 2018.

The solar project in Adas
The solar project in Adas / Credit: Radheshyam Jadhav.

There are three possible solar options for agriculture pumping including large centralised solar plants, solar-powered agriculture feeders, and solar pump sets. Prayas and other energy experts suggest that solar-powered agriculture feeders are a more farmer-centric and equitable option for agriculture supply.

“The investment burden on the government is lower, the quality of supply is better, and maintenance is easier,” Prayas report states. All the pump-sets on 11 kV feeder are supplied by solar power, generated by a 1-2 MW solar plant, and are connected to the Discom substation. When required, power can be drawn, and if solar power generation is high, it can be exported to the grid.

“This system has worked well for two years now. Also, there are fewer power losses in this centralised system, ” said an MSEDCL official in Beed who is in charge of 582.12 kWp solar PV power plant in Adas village.

“The regular power supply during night time fluctuated and almost 60 per cent water pumps never functioned. But things are slowly changing after the Adas plant came up. Now, the agriculture feeder must be separated from regular feeders,” said Suresh Solanki a local farmer. Suresh cultivates soyabean and cotton in his field and says that power supply shortage could be addressed by installing more solar-powered agriculture feeders. He says that more farmers are inclined to get the power supply from solar feeders instead of installing standalone solar water pumps which require maintenance.

Reducing financial burden

The Maharashtra government has launched Mukhyamantri Saur Krishi Vahini Yojana to install 2- 10 MW capacity solar power projects within 5 km of substations in agriculture dominated areas. The objective is to provide a daytime power supply to the farmers by setting up solar projects. Farmers can lease their surplus lands to the government at the rate of ₹30,000 per acre per year (with a yearly 3 per cent increment). The lease rate for government land is ₹1 for a period of 30 years.

Many solar power plants are coming up under the scheme and a 7 MW solar power plant in Degaon village in Dhule district of north Maharashtra is a part of it. “Farmers from 6-7 villages are getting power supply from the plant. As power is generated and distributed in the same locality there are no distribution losses” said Gulabsing Girase, one of the Directors of Gro Solar Energy, the company appointed by the State to run the project.

The Centre has included solarisation of agriculture feeders under the PM-KUSUM Scheme. The government of India provides 30 per cent subsidy for the solarisation of agricultural feeders. This lowers the cost of capital and the cost of power. The farmers will get day-time reliable power for irrigation free of cost or at tariff fixed by their respective States.

Farmers in the fields
Farmers in the fields / Credit: Radheshyam Jadhav.

According to Prayas solar, agricultural feeders provide assured and reliable hours of supply to agriculture in day time along with better voltage and fewer interruptions. The solar agriculture feeder option is more cost-effective and manageable as compared to individual solar pumps. Considering the fixed cost of solar generation (over 20-25 years) and the increasing cost of grid supply, a solar feeder with efficient pumps will be cheaper than a grid supply.

Eleven major Discoms in the country consume 95 per cent of total agricultural electricity consumption of the country and annually provide over ₹1 lakh crore as electricity subsidy for agriculture. This subsidy comes from the State’s exchequer. The aggregate subsidy amount on account of electricity for the agricultural needs of the country has been rising over the years.

Conflict and climate change

There is a multi-pronged conflict going on in the fields, says Ramesh Nakhate , a farmer from Hasnabad. “The MSEDCL is not providing us power supply because farmers are not prime consumers. Farmers are not paying bills because of huge losses incurred in agriculture. We are fighting for survival. And there is a man versus animal conflict in fields” he says.

“Solar is the answer. I have installed a stand alone solar water pump in my field. But other farmers are still waiting to get it. More solar-powered agriculture feeders could end these conflicts in the lives of farmers” says Ramesh.

The replacement of existing diesel pumps with solar pumps will not only reduce the irrigation costs of around ₹50,000 per year (for 5HP pump) but also lead to a reduction in pollution.

The Centre estimates that nearly 80 lakh pumps out of approximately 3 crore agricultural pumps installed in the country are diesel pumps. The total diesel consumption of these pumps in a year works out to 5.52 billion litre along with equivalent CO2 emission of 15.4 million tonnes. When implemented fully, PM-KUSUM will lead to reducing carbon emissions by as much as 32 million tonnes of CO2 per annum.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Hindu Business Line on 18 November 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: Farmers say they have to risk their lives to water crops at midnight / Credit: Radheshyam Jadhav.

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