- India’s agriculture sector accounts for 22 percent of the total power consumed in India. To decrease this burden, India is increasingly turning to decentralised renewable energy (DRE) systems, especially solar power, in rural areas.
- The DRE-based applications have already gained popularity in India and are increasingly being adopted by farmers. Decentralised renewable energy is small-scale, off-grid energy generation units located close to the site of consumption.
- The government is taking a series of steps to address the financial challenges that the DRE sector is facing but much more efforts are required to overcome these challenges.
The past few months have been peaceful for Vitthal Reddy, a sugarcane farmer from Karaknalli village of the Bidar district of Karnataka. After a long time, he managed to save his farm from crop-eating wild boars. For the past 10 years, he had been unsuccessful in finding a solution to animals raiding his crop. But this season he thinks he has finally solved the puzzle. He installed a solar fencing machine to protect the sugarcane crop from wild boar, and, so far, the device is working well.
Around 1,400 kilometres away, Omgiri Goswami from Bhopalgarh in Rajasthan, is also using solar power to irrigate farms and cook fodder for his cattle. His area faces frequent power cuts and during this time it is the solar power that has come to his aid.
Meanwhile, in Manyachiwadi village of Maharashtra’s Satara area, a few women self-help groups came forward to transform the village with solar power. Ravindra Anandrao Mane, sarpanch of Manyachiwadi village, told Mongabay-India that earlier the village used to face power cuts for hours. But then, in 2008, around 100 families of his village, led by women, collected money and installed a 3 kilowatt off-grid solar power system. The total capacity of village’s solar energy is 11 kilowatt including roof-top solar. “Now, we are self-sufficient in terms of our energy needs,” he said.
What is common in these three cases is decentralised solar power that is being used by farmers and people living in rural areas of India. Decentralised power refers to energy generated off the main grid, closer to the site of consumption.
While sharing his experience of using solar-powered fencing, Vitthal Reddy explained to Mongabay-India that he tried all kinds of fencing to stop the animals but electric fencing has been the most effective solution. “Due to restrictions of the forest department, my field does not have (grid-connected) electricity. But last year I installed solar fencing. Earlier, I used to lose yield due to wild boar eating crops on my farm but this season the crop loss has come down significantly,” he said.
The solar-powered fence machine, known as Solar Jhatka (shock), gives a controlled electric shock to animals that approach it. The mild shock does not harm the animal but deters it from crossing over into the farms to eat the crops. Reddy purchased the device from another farmer Sharanbasappa Patil from Kalaburagi district of Karnataka who is also managing a 30-acre farm using solar energy. Patil is not only a farmer but also innovates and improvises solar devices like solar fencing machines and solar helmets.
“Grid-connected electricity has some limitations. Due to remotely placed fields and forest department restrictions, many farms in my area are not well connected to power grids. I use solar energy for almost every operation in my field, from running water pumps to spraying pesticides. Solar pumps can save up to 20 percent of input cost and improve yield by 30 percent because of water availability,” Patil told Mongabay-India.
In fact, he improvised the solar fencing machine already available in the market and made it less costly for fellow farmers. “I did a diploma in Electronics and Electrical Equipments from an industrial training institute a few years ago. With the help of my knowledge, I assembled low-cost solar equipment for my farms,” said Patil.
The Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), Kalaburagi helps Patil to innovate new devices and educate farmers about them in the area. Raju Teggali, an entomologist who heads the Kalaburagi KVK said, “We provide information about innovative agriculture devices such as solar fencing machines to the farmers. We also provide them with training to operate and maintain the devices.”
Like Reddy, Omgiri Goswami in Rajasthan, also has a connection to central government-run Krishi Vigyan Kendras. “Scientists from KVK, CAZRI (Central Arid Zone Research Institute) Jodhpur approached me and provided the animal feed cooker for a pilot project. I have been using this device for 8 years,” Goswami shared.
KVK CAZRI, is part of ICAR’s Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI). The Division of Agricultural Engineering and Renewable Energy of CAZRI has developed around half a dozen of solar equipment such as a solar duster (solar equipment for insecticides/pesticides application), a solar desalination device (used for distilled water), a solar cooker, etc.
Decentralised renewable energy in the agricultural sector
Decentralised renewable energy or off-grid energy means small-scale energy generation units that deliver energy to a local group and are usually not connected to power grids.
In India, solar energy holds the most prominent share in India’s DRE capacity. According to the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), India by March 2022 has installed 934,941 solar lights, 8.4 million solar lanterns, 216,862.68 kilowatts peak (kWp), and these numbers are only expected to grow.
In addition, solar-powered pumps are increasingly being adopted across the country. It is estimated that the cost of power for irrigation accounts for 20-40 percent of production costs in agriculture. According to the Impact Assessment of the National Solar Pumps Programme by Shakti Foundation in 2018, there are 19 million pump sets powered by grid-connected electricity and nine million pump sets powered by diesel in India. Grid-connected pumps consumes 85 million tons of coal/annum and diesel pumps consume 3.1 per cent of national diesel consumption.
Another estimate by the union ministry of power released in 2015 said, “There are about 20 million pump sets presently energized in India and annual addition of 0.25 to 0.5 million pump sets are realized in this sector. Agriculture sector consumes 20-22 percent of total electricity consumption.”
“Solar energy, both in electricity and thermal energy, is significantly relied upon by farmers in agricultural production and processing, particularly for irrigation, cooling and drying,” Abhishek Jain, Fellow and Director-Powering Livelihoods at CEEW, told Mongabay-India. “With irrigation, livestock and dairy farm maintenance requiring a significant amount of electricity, farmers tend to utilise solar energy for these applications to reduce the burden of operational costs.”
Jain emphasised that according to a survey by CLEAN, a non-profit organisation, committed to supporting, unifying and growing the clean energy enterprises in India, the top five farm-based livelihood appliances are the solar water pumps, solar refrigerators and freezers, solar mills/rice Huller and polisher, solar cold storage devices and solar dryer. So far, 237,000 (2.37 lakh) solar water pumps have been installed across India and the target is to install 3.5 million (35 lakh) standalone solar pumps. According to the estimates of government, over 220 lakh grid connected agriculture pumps installed in the country consumes 213 billion units of electricity annually. With 35 lakh Solar-powered pumps, India could save atlest 15 per cent electricity.
India’s policymakers are also focusing on decentralised renewable energy products. In fact, in February 2022, the MNRE released a framework for promoting DRE livelihood applications. The DRE livelihood applications are those applications that are powered by renewable energy – solar, wind, micro-hydro, biomass – and their combinations that are used for earning livelihoods directly such as solar dryers, solar mills, solar or biomass powered cold storage/chiller, solar charkha and looms, small-scale biomass pellet-making machines.
“With MNRE’s new framework, the association of DRE–based livelihood applications and the agricultural sector is positioned to grow immensely. The special focus on engaging different ecosystem stakeholders, including various central and state government ministries and departments, banking and financial institutions, skill development and capacity building entities would enable the scaling up of DRE-based livelihood appliances,” Jain explained.
Potential of off-grid projects and finance woes
It is estimated that India has a wind potential of more than 300 gigawatt (GW) at a hub height of 100 metres, solar potential of 750 GW, assuming three percent of India’s total land is available, 20 GW of small hydro, and 25 GW of bio-energy. India has a target of installing 450 GW of renewable power capacity and meet 50 per cent of its energy requirements through renewable energy by 2030.
It is already accepted that decentralised renewable energy is expected to be an important player in the country’s clean energy transition but what is needed is a serious improvement in finance for it. According to a recent report by Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), to meet its sustainable energy targets, India will require an annual DRE investment of $18 billion by 2024, a 10 times increase from current levels.
MNRE has been providing Central Financial Assistance (CFA) for the deployment of DRE systems such as solar lanterns but much more is required. However, even as the government has been pushing for the rapid growth of the renewable sector, subsidies to support have witnessed a sharp decline.
A recent study by the CEEW and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) said that renewable energy subsidies in India have fallen by 59 percent to Rs. 6,767 crores (Rs. 67.6 billion) after peaking at Rs. 16,312 crores (Rs. 163.1 billion) in financial year 2017. The report ‘Mapping India’s Energy Policy 2022: Aligning Support and Revenues with a Net-Zero Future’ found that schemes for the development of solar parks along with off-grid and decentralized solar applications witnessed an aggregate fall in subsidies by Rs. 385 crores (Rs. 3.8 billion).
On financial challenges before the DRE Sector, CEEW’s Jain said that the “majority of the financial institutions are still more focussed on conventional DRE technologies such as solar lanterns, solar pumps, and home lighting systems.”
“There exists low confidence among the financiers regarding the profitability of DRE applications for productive use. The limited availability of finance for the end-users is one of the top barriers to mainstreaming the DRE applications for productive use. The DRE livelihood appliances have a larger ticket size, thus making it challenging for the end-users to afford it, given the low financial strength,” he explained
MNRE’s framework for DRE livelihood applications also recognises the financial challenges as it notes that “since DRE powered solutions are capital intensive in nature, financing for the end-users and enterprises would be critical to enable the adoption of solutions and scale-up of the sector.”
“In partnership with financial institutions, a financing facility offering a first loss default guarantee with partial risk coverage to facilitate access to credit for entrepreneurs and end-users would be worked out,” the framework said.
Banner image: Boy in Bihar, using solar pump to bath. Solar pumps can save up to 20 percent of input cost. Photo by Ayush Manik/Flickr.