Solar Pumps: India’s Potential to Link Electricity Access and Irrigation Needs?

Tata Fellow Varun Mehra on how solar pumps could make farming more profitable and lead the way toward rural electrification.

katie taylor kevin simon solar pump

“In India, over 50% of the workforce is employed in the agricultural sector so there is an enormous opportunity to link residential electricity needs with agricultural electricity needs, like the electricity needed to power irrigation pumps, and provide a more comprehensive electrification solution.”

In an op-ed for The Energy Collective, Tata Fellow Varun Mehra argues that leveraging solar technology to irrigate small farms can be an important part of an overall strategy for providing energy access in rural India.

“Today, most Indian farmers typically rely on the monsoon for watering crops, however, irrigation can increase crop yields up to four times. But irrigation requires energy. Currently, it is estimated that 26 million diesel and electric pumps run on Indian farms, making them the dominant technology offerings today.”

With relatively high water tables throughout India, particularly the Ganges River delta, using an overpowered and highly consumptive diesel pump doesn’t make economic sense for small farmers, but at the moment they have few alternatives. At the same time, connection to the main power grid is impossible for many. Even when access is available, frequent outages make pumping an exercise in frustration. “Having electricity flow through wires in the middle of the night isn’t helpful for farmers or laborers who need to pump water during the day.”

Mehra proposes an integrative solution for rural electrification: “If solar pumps can be treated as anchor loads — loads that have consistent electricity needs — they can be integrated into solar-powered microgrid systems, opening new opportunities to link electricity access solutions with the other needs of rural Indian communities.”

However, he cautions that there are several challenges that must be overcome. “A viable business model to implement such a concept would require careful thought. In order to be financially sustainable, electricity service providers must develop creative yet equitable ways to extract value from providing electricity for residential and pumping purposes.”

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Related Tata Center projects

Tata Center projects addressing this problem include Drip Irrigation and Solar Pumping, uLink Peer-to-Peer Electricity Distribution, and Varun Mehra’s research into materials criticality and rural electrification.

Photo: Tata Fellows Katie Taylor and Kevin Simon are piloting their solar pump in rural Jharkhand, India.