Off-grid, standalone solar pumps under government scheme remain underutilised

  • The PM-KUSUM scheme, launched in 2019, aimed to achieve energy and water security for farmers, boost farmers’ income and phase out diesel usage in the agricultural sector.
  • Standalone solar pumps distributed under the scheme remain underutilised due to various reasons and do not tap the full potential of the solar product. The government is parallelly pushing for the use of a Universal Solar Pump Controller to use the solar energy generated, more efficiently.
  • Analysing data generated by the real-time monitoring system in these pumps can help the government in better planning and execution of the scheme, experts claim.

After the slow offtake of the PM-KUSUM scheme in the initial few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other reasons, the government of India expects that the solar pump installations will gain momentum during 2023-24. The scheme, launched in 2019, aims to solarise agricultural pumps and support the installation of solar capacity.

Proper use of existing data can help the government in better planning and execution of the scheme, say renewable energy experts that Mongabay India spoke to. Every solar pump under the PM-Kusum scheme has a Remote Monitoring System (RMS) to ensure monitoring on a real-time basis. The RMS transmits data from the pump to the server. The data includes information on the location and status of the solar pump, water discharge, pump usage pattern, energy generation and capacity utilisation of the pump.

Using this data effectively, say the experts, will also overcome one of the significant challenges with standalone solar pumps – seasonal dormancy.

In many parts of India, solar pumps are used for irrigation in some parts of the year and are left idle for the remaining part of the year because of the crop cycles.

In Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan, for example, while there are multiple challenges to using solar pumps among some farmers, such as groundwater depletion, the limited or seasonal use of solar pumps is common as well. Ranveer Singh, from Badau village in Jhunjhunu district, uses a 7.5 horsepower (HP) solar pump, which he received under the PM-KUSUM scheme, from 10 am to almost 3 pm daily to irrigate his 20-acre farmland. But from April end to mid-September, it stays unused because of the sowing and harvesting cycle. “It is not the season to sow crops. We will use it in September during sowing of the rabi crop,” he added. One days that it is needed for irrigation, he uses the pump for around 4-5 hours.

Solar pumps installed in Rajasthan, a state with around 325 sunny days, are utilised for an average of 139 days annually, found a study by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) Ltd and KPMG India, a financial and business advisory firm, conducted for the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. The study, which is not yet released to the public, also found that solar pumps are used for 0 to 50 days in Odisha and 130 to 180 days in Tamil Nadu.

The pumps in these states remain idle for the rest of the year and the solar energy generated in the remaining period is not utilised, thus missing out on tapping the potential of solar pumps.

Lead researcher of this study, Anupam Ray, shared details of the field study with Mongabay India, saying, “Utilisation of solar water pumps is a big issue given the high initial cost, and the central and state governments make a large part of this investment. In the survey, we went to four states and met farmers who were using solar pumps and found out that for around half of the year, the solar pumps were not utilised as the fields needed irrigation only for a limited period. There were other reasons, too, like a fragmented land parcel, non-optimal pump size, etc.” The findings from the study that was conducted in four states (Tamil Nadu, Odisha Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan) and analyses issues around solar pumps and how to improve utilisation of these pumps, are still being recorded for further analysis and action.

In Chhattisgarh, only 27% of the total potential of solar pumps in used, found a separate study, from 2021, conducted by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a New Delhi-based think tank.

The under-utilisation of solar equipment installed under the PM-KUSUM scheme, is also recognised in the renewable energy ministry’s report on the scheme from earlier this year. It says that pumps are generally used for a limited period of around 150 (days) a year. It recommends that the “installed solar capacity can be utilised for remaining days using Universal Solar Pump Controller (USPC).” A USPC enables the farmer to use solar power for other activities such as operating a chaff cutter, flour mill, cold storage, drier, battery charger, etc., when not in use for agriculture.

Mongabay India has written a letter to MNRE to know about its plan related to RMS data and ensure better solar pump utilisation but did not receive a response at the time of publishing.

A solar energy expert who has worked on government projects, told Mongabay India, on the condition on anonymity, that analysis of solar pump data installed under the PM-KUSUM scheme can tell whether the pump is under-utilised or over-utilised. Based on this analysis, the government can prioritise areas where the scheme needs a push or change in a strategy to maximise the usage of solar pumps, he said.

Usage not proportional to the investment

The government approved the PM-KUSUM scheme on February 19, 2019, to achieve energy and water security for farmers, boost farmers’ income, and phase out diesel usage in the agricultural sector. The deadline for implementing the scheme was 2022, however, the government has pushed it to March 2026.

Under the scheme, the government targets solarising decentralised grid-connected solar power plant, setting up 20 lakh standalone solar-powered agriculture pumps and solarisation of 15 lakh existing grid-connected agriculture pumps, all as three separate components. The second component – standalone solar-powered pumps not connected to the grid – is where underutilisation happens.

Up to March 31, 2023, around 2,18,539 solar pumps have been installed in agricultural fields in India under the PM-KUSUM scheme.

Installing a solar pump under the scheme currently costs around Rs. 1.5 lakhs for the farmer. The state and central governments bear 30% each, or a total of 60% of the cost is subsidised. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests the government spend Rs. 90,000 on one solar pump so installing 20 lakh standalone solar-powered agriculture pumps will cost Rs. 18 billion (Rs. 1,800 crores). In the case of a 7.5 HP pump, the maximum permitted, the installation cost per pump increases to Rs. 3.25 lakh, and the subsidy amount also rises to Rs. 195,000.

Akhilesh Kumar, from Patusari village in Jhunjhunu district, installed a USPC. But, it did not work. Photo arranged by Akhilesh Kumar.
Akhilesh Kumar, from Patusari village in Jhunjhunu district, installed a USPC. But, it did not work. Photo arranged by Akhilesh Kumar.

PM-KUSUM scheme has a provision to support USPC controllers, which allows electrical appliances other than pumps to run on the solar setup as a secondary use. However the potential of this provision is not yet tapped, says Anas Rahman, the lead author of the CEEW study and now a policy advisor at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). He highlights the need for a concerted effort from all stakeholders including the private sector and farmers’ cooperatives, to maximise the usage of USPC.

He says that the central government mandate is just to offer the subsidy as it is a demand-driven scheme. It is for the state governments to decide the beneficiaries of the scheme, etc. “We have not seen enough efforts from the states to popularise and generate awareness about the opportunity of secondary use among beneficiaries. There are multiple examples of the same farmer getting grid connection and off-grid solar solutions, too, which inefficient expenditure by the government,” he added.

Better planning can maximise the benefit

Ray, the lead author of the GIZ study, shares experiences from his field research, “To utilise these assets (solar pumps) efficiently, we found that in Uttar Pradesh, a farmer converted the fixed solar pump into a portable solar pump for use beyond his fields. Earlier, we had seen in Bihar that some farmers purchased solar pumps together and used them to divide the purchase cost. This community usage of pumps helped the farmers deal with financial problems associated with it and maximise its utilisation during daytime throughout the year,” he added.

Anas Rahman also highlights the need to explore alternative business models of solar pump deployment. For example, group irrigation allows multiple farmers to irrigate, thus increasing pump utilisation. Still, there will be lull periods in farming when there is no need for irrigation. We can think of new models combining group irrigation with secondary use.

Though there are talks about decentralising renewable energy, at present, only limited applications like solar pumps for irrigation purposes are in mainstream. Other DRE optimised appliances are not yet widely promoted. But if we support other applications like food processing, milling, etc. it can help increase the usage of solar equipment, Rahman says.

Providing alternate solutions to USPC, Rahman said, promoting smaller (up to 2-3 HP), solar pumps can also help since horticulture needs irrigation throughout the year. It will have another benefit, too. The scheme is still out of reach for small and marginal farmers as they cannot afford it. These farmers will benefit from the schemes if a low-capacity pump is promoted. Another solution is to promote off-grid solar pumps only in those areas where taking the grid is challenging task, says Rahman.

Rajasthan experience with USPC

In 2020, the government had amended the PM-KUSUM guidelines to promote USPC and said subsidy will be available for USPC pumps (in addition to standalone solar pumps) as well. While the central government’s focus is to promote both USPC and solar pumps, the offtake of USPC is slow compared to standalone solar pumps, says energy expert who has been researching USPC, P. S. S. S. R. Chandramurthy.

In Rajasthan, for example, there are about 129 USPCs currently installed against a total of 59,234 standalone off-grid solar pumps, under the PM-KUSUM Scheme, according to the information provided by the Rajasthan Horticulture Department, the nodal agency of the scheme in the state.

Some of the farmers that are using USPC currently, spoke about its challenges to Mongabay India. Akhilesh Kumar, from Patusari village in Jhunjhunu district, installed a USPC on his farm in May 2022. It was a sample given by the company to promote the USPC. “It worked hardly for a few hours and no household items were supported by it. USPC that was provided to us used to work on three phases (distribution of electricity load), while the household items work on a single phase. That entire structure cost around Rs 3 lakh. We complained to the company, which later sent officials to check the product, but it didn’t work. We sent it back after a week,” said Kumar.

Reacting to this, P. S. S. S. R. Chandramurthy said, “There are various factors responsible for this, like the quality of the USPC and the machines being used. If the solar plates are of 3.5 HP capacity and someone wants to run a 500w machine, it won’t work. It is an evolving technology and will catch up soon.”

Farmers in the state are overall not keen to invest in a USPC because it has not successfully worked so far, says Naresh Jindal a local solar equipment dealer from Sri Ganganagar district in the state.

However, there is a well-known example of USPC being successfully used by a farmer in Rajasthan named Kamal Meena. Since 2020, Meena, from Bharatpur district, has been using the USPC for agricultural work on his four-hectare farm and for household usage. His success story was mentioned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Mann Ki Baat podcast on September 20, 2022.

Speaking to Mongabay India, Meena said, “I installed a solar pump in 2015 before the PM-KUSUM scheme. In 2020, I decided to install a USPC, which cost me around Rs. 38,000. I use the solar pump to irrigate my four hectares of farmland in the morning and thereafter for a chaff cutter and other household items like a television, fan and cooler. We have been able to utilise our panels efficiently.”

A farmer in Rajasthan, Kamal Meena installed USPC and now he usages his solar pumps for many purposes including irrigation, a chaff cutter, and other household items like a television, fan, and cooler. Photo by Kamal Meena
A farmer in Rajasthan, Kamal Meena installed USPC and now he usages his solar pumps for many purposes including irrigation, a chaff cutter, and other household items like a television, fan, and cooler. Photo arranged by Kamal Meena.

Talking about the USPC, Ray said, “The USPC works perfectly and its deployment is easier in places where the farm and house are adjacent to each other. In this scenario, after the irrigation requirements are fulfilled for the day, a farmer can use it to run the flour mill, chaff cutter, milk chiller, battery bank charger, shredder, etc. USPC can help the farmer to utilise the investment made in the solar water pump efficiently and can help them save and make additional income.”


Banner image: A farmer with a mobile solar powered pump in Jharkhand. Photo by Srikant Chaudhary.

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