Solar Powered Irrigation System in BISA Farm, Pusa, Bihar, India Photo credit: Ayush Manik (Independent Consultant)/ 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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Mainstreaming solar pumps in the Global South: Lessons from India

Solar pumps are becoming an attractive alternative to meet the rising irrigation demand without adding carbon emissions.

Almost 80 per cent of agriculture in developing countries is rainfed, increasingly becoming vulnerable to frequent droughts as per the latest IPCC report. Sustainable expansion of irrigation access in these countries is more critical than ever. Solar pumps are becoming an attractive alternative to meet the rising irrigation demand without adding carbon emissions.

While solar pumps have slowly gained traction in many developing countries, it stands much below their market potential. Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where irrigation access is less than 5 per cent, has only 5,000 solar pump installations. In contrast, India has installed more than 300,000 solar pumps in the last decade. Its experience provides key lessons for other developing economies to scale up solar pumps. Here are seven lessons the world can learn from India on solar pumps:

  • The decentralised nature of solar pumps helps reach deprived communities effectively.

Solar pumps can succeed where conventional strategies fail. Expanding the grid to each farm is resource-intensive; deploying diesel pumps is unsustainable due to high costs and emissions. In India, solar pump expansion has provided irrigation access in areas and communities hitherto deprived of state irrigation support schemes. Especially smallholders, who constitute 60 per cent of SSA farmers, can benefit from solar pumps. However, reaching the deprived communities is not a given and is critically linked to effective strategies or criteria to target them.

  • Promoting local entrepreneurship, even beyond core components, makes the solar pump value chain resilient and efficient.

India facilitated the formation of intermediaries, called ‘System Integrators’ (SI), who acted as the bridge between the component manufacturers (pumps, PV arrays, controllers etc.) and the market. In contrast, Original Equipment Manufacturers drive the sector in most countries. The SI model enabled a variety of PV arrays and pumps combinations, increasing the competition and market efficiency, and created a network of local entrepreneurs capable of installing solar pumps across the country.

  • Innovations in deployment models are critical to unlocking affordable access to solar pumps.

While PAYGO models have become popular in SSA, models like community-owned solar pumps and ‘pumping-as-a-service’, which have been tested extensively in India, can also address the upfront cost barrier to adoption and yield attractive returns to entrepreneurs.

  1. Government has a critical role in jumpstarting the market.

The government’s role in solar pump adoption is critical, as India has shown. Firstly, a stable policy environment with clear goals helped create market certainty and confidence for new entrepreneurs. Secondly, the government’s capital subsidy supported initial adopters of solar pumps who also served as technology demonstrators to others. Spreading the subsidised pumps into all parts of a state or region facilitates faster technology diffusion. Thirdly, the government also aggregated the demand for subsidised pumps and contracted it in bulk, leveraging economies of scale to lower technology costs. International Solar Alliance (ISA), a multi-country coalition, is already trying to aggregate demand across various countries in SSA and South Asia.

  1. Timely phase-out of government support is as important as their timely introduction.

While subsidies are important to create early adopters, they are hard to repeal due to the political economy structures they create. As India’s experience shows, the subsidy support is becoming a perpetual scheme with even up to 90 per cent subsidies in some states. It creates unsustainable fiscal pressure, and the innovation on financial and business models to enhance the adoption of solar pumps stifles. States must carefully plan capital subsidies with gradual and predictable withdrawal.

  1. Translating a ‘green technology’ into a sustainable solution needs conscious effort.

Solar pumps do not necessarily ensure sustainability by virtue of being ‘green’. Their indiscriminate deployment in areas with declining groundwater tables not only exacerbate the water challenge but can also leave the solar pump stranded after a few years — undermining both environmental and economic outcomes. The focus should be on their adequate sizing, greater utilisation through pump sharing and promoting non-irrigation use of solar power like agroprocessing to improve their financial viability.

  1. Data can be instrumental in informing deployment strategy, improving service delivery, and guiding policies.

CSOs in India have developed data-based tools to guide the solar pump deployment and their sizing. Data has been instrumental in expansion PAYGo systems for off-grid solar applications in SSA. Solar pump tools and remote monitoring data from existing pumps can augment data intelligence and further reduce costs and risks. India recently developed an online platform to aggregate nationwide performance data of solar pumps which can guide future programme design and deployments. Some vendors have also used such data for predictive maintenance, reducing maintenance costs.

To conclude, solar pumps offer an attractive opportunity to enhance the resilience of the vulnerable farmers in the Global South. Taking inspiration from the Indian experience, the national and subnational governments must act soon to realise this massive opportunity to improve their farmers’ food and income security.

By: Anas Rahman and Abhishek Jain

Rahman is a Programme Associate, and Jain is a Fellow and Director – Powering Livelihoods at CEEW, a policy think tank.

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