Solar pumps are transforming the agricultural landscape throughout the developing world. The availability of energy throughout the year, as well as government interest across the globe, are benefits in the fight against climate change.
Solar irrigation pumps provide support to rural off-grid areas usually underserved or served by costly fuel-driven pumps. An analysis shows that small solar pumps are a better alternative for 11% of the contemporary and future small motorized fuel hydrocarbon pumps on smallholder estates (Barron et al 2018). The cost of energy has been an issue and often biased towards the rural communities around the world including some parts of the developed countries due to accessibility and maintenance cost issues. Rural areas often are subsidized or pay a higher price for energy than usual.
According to a 2018 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Asia has more than tripled its total capacity to 4.3 GW in 2017 from 1.3 GW in 2008 in solar irrigation pumping. Asian countries like Bangladesh, India, and the Philippines are taking a lead in the revolution. In 2010, there were about 150 solar pumps in Bangladesh, 53 of them were used for irrigation across Bangladesh. Currently, 923 are operational with a cumulative capacity of 18MW. The target is to have 50000 solar pumps by 2025. In neighboring India, 127,600 solar pumps have been installed by 2017, according to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, India. In 2014, India planned to replace 26 million groundwater pumps, mainly diesel run for irrigation with more efficient pumps that run on solar power. In the Philippines, the “first and biggest” solar-powered irrigation system started operating in 2018.
If one looks at Africa, the potential is tremendous. Less than 4% of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is currently under irrigation, compared to 40% in Asia. Studies have shown that in countries like Benin, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia, the quality of irrigation through solar pumps have advanced and the costs have declined. In the process, they raise farmers’ incomes and allow countries to lower carbon emissions and meet climate commitments. For example, Kenya plans to eliminate 3 million tonnes CO2 of emissions per year by 2030 through the use of solar pumps.
Already the country has roughly 3,600 smallholder irrigation projects that span 168,000 acres. This year alone, they have plans to install 2000 solar pumps for irrigation. Morocco is set to install more than 100,000 solar pumps by 2020. Egypt is implementing a program for desert agriculture, with plans to irrigate 630,000 hectares of land using solar technology.
NASA reported in 2016 that from 1998 to 2012, the Middle-East was about 50 percent drier than the driest period in the past 500 years, and 10 to 20 percent drier than the worst drought of the past 900 years. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), water demand has nearly tripled since 2000. For farmers, the demand has led to a cost increase, making electricity for irrigation unobtainable for many. The sustainable solar water pumping system is cutting the operation costs by up to 60 percent a year compared to traditional generators for UAE farmers.
In most of these countries where the solar pump is gaining popularity, cost-effective financing and innovative business models are in vogue to assist small-scale farmers. Solar panels produce energy even when no irrigation is needed. This energy is utilized to power small businesses, run rice huskers, mills, water purifiers, cold storage units, all contributing to rural development and incomes in rural off-grid areas.
The problem with such initiatives is the local community usually receives the innovative technology without expanding their capacity for operation, maintenance and service delivery. Realizing the true potential and adaptation to new technologies take time. Then there is the problem of over-pumping of groundwater — with a steady supply of energy, this is quite likely. Community engagement and capacity development must be emphasized by governments and donor agencies in order to reap the benefits of the ongoing revolution.