The technology around off-grid solar products has seen considerable development over the years, making access to energy easier for millions of people in energy-starved regions. Highlighting the benefits of some of these products, the newly launched Efficiency for Agricultural Technologies campaign by the Efficiency for Access Coalition has brought the conversation around solar water pumps to the forefront.
The agricultural sector employs 40% of the world’s population. Despite this, many of the world’s smallholder farmers, especially those in remote locations, have no access to energy. Over the last few years, however, off-grid solar products, especially solar water pumps for irrigation have revolutionized, to help farmers increase crop yields and income, in addition to making them more climate resilient.
Solar water pumps: The current landscape
While solar irrigation has been around since the 1970s, only in the last few years has this segment of the sector seen a surge in innovation.
Similar to the benefits of solar lighting, new technologies within the solar water pump segment can also help increase income levels. GOGLA has observed that with new products being brought to market, new value chains are created, generating more jobs. So, for us, taking a step into this area of productive use appliances was an obvious next move.
Three of our members focus purely on agricultural productive assets; Agsol, Futurepump, and SunCulture. And we’re not alone - interest in this technology is rising across agricultural institutes and governments in the developing world too.
How technological innovations have transformed solar water pumps
Smallholder farmers mainly rely on rainfall to water their crops, leaving them at the mercy of uncertain climatic conditions. In the absence of rain, farmers either resort to manual means of crop irrigation or fossil fuel powered pumps – leaving them overburdened physically and financially. The benefits reaped too are minimum.
Smallholder farmers are slowly beginning to experience the benefits of solar pumping. “The pump is our future…,” claimed George Otieno, a farmer from Lake Victoria in Kenya, who recently bought Futurepump’s latest product, the SF2. He added, “If you’ve got this pump, you don’t go into your pocket to go and buy fuel to operate it. You don’t use your energy to operate it. As long as there is sun, the pump works by itself.”
Most solar-powered water pumps on the market today have integrated remote monitoring or Internet of Things (IoT) platforms. IoT enables a network of communication between the product and a range of other Internet-enabled devices, both traditional and beyond. Smallholder farmers and manufacturers can monitor and understand their solar pumps better through this uniquely connected network – information that can then be used to further efficiency and productivity.
IoT and the rapidly reducing price of solar PV have made access to efficient irrigation easier. Solar water pumps like SunCulture’s RainMaker2 benefit farmers with their in-built platform, ClimateSmart. The platform uses soil sensors and internet-connected weather stations to analyze data and provide customers with weather forecasts and best irrigation timing advice on their mobile devices. The platform also enables digital dry run protection to automatically disable a farmer’s RainMaker2 pump and notify them if their well runs dry.
Similarly, Futurepump’s SF2 remote monitoring platform keeps track of the pump’s vital signs and pump utilization – litres of water pumped, area irrigated, fuel savings and other such technical data, which can be beneficial for both distributors and customers.
Using IoT to enable remote switch-off also makes it possible for both SunCulture and Futurepump to operate their solar pumps by PAYGo payment models.
Substantiating these benefits, a recent study in India reported that 45% of farmers using solar pumps saw an increase of 50% or more in their annual incomes compared to rain-fed irrigation.
Solar irrigation has environmental benefits too
As the consequences of climate change become more real, improved irrigation will become an increasingly important mechanism for sustainable and drought-resistant farming, rapidly removing the need for fossil fuels.
Futurepump founder, Toby Hammond explains “Nearly all small solar pumps will have a lower flow rate than fossil fuels pumps because it's hard for sunshine to match the ‘energy density’ of hydrocarbons. Farmers accustomed to flood-irrigation will need big fixed solar installations. For other farmers, however, slower rates of pumping is a price worth paying to eliminate the fuel costs. Also, slower pumping rates are gentler to water tables and, in many cases, to the crops themselves.”
What’s stopping solar water pump systems from scaling?
Solar water pumps can unlock huge benefits to farmers, to their wider community, and to the planet. The sector however still has a few hurdles to face. CEO and co-founder of SunCulture, Samir Ibrahim explains; "I think there’s a metaphorical snowball at the top of a mountain. A small snowball, but it's there. All it needs is a little push”.
He continues, “Governments and businesses need financial incentives in order to iterate their business models to reach scale…When putting these incentives in place, it's important to ensure they’re only there for a pre-determined period of time, so that the market doesn't depend on them. Some examples could be smart subsidies (i.e. results-based financing), efficient 100% loan guarantees, and blended finance to reduce the cost of financing."
The future of solar irrigation
The Efficiency for Access Coalition’s report from the 2018 Solar Water Pumping roundtable estimates that increasing the scale of solar water pumps could benefit nearly 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide by enabling cost-effective irrigation.
Governments in developing regions too are slowly shifting their focus to the segment. In February 2019, the Indian government approved the KUSUM (Kisan Urja Suraksha Utthaan Maha Abhiyaan) scheme wherein a key component of the scheme includes an outlay of $3.3 billion to set-up 1.75 million off-grid solar pumps by 2022, nearly 10 times the number of currently installed pumps.
While farmers who are currently not able to irrigate at all could benefit the most from this technology, enormous economic and environmental benefits will follow.
As Hammond concludes, “Whilst sunshine is effectively limitless, as the industry grows, water resource management will become increasingly important…Solar irrigation has a very bright future. There are huge opportunities for the world's smallholder farmers to increase both their income and climate resilience, especially by being able to grow high-value crops in dry seasons when prices are highest.”