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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. 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. Moreover, 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. It helps farmers increasing crop yields and income, in addition to making them more climate resilient. So, how solar water pumps push sustainable irrigation?

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 them, taking a step into this area of productive use appliances was an obvious next move.

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 water pumps for sustainable irrigation.

“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.”

George Otieno, a farmer from Lake Victoria in Kenya

Internet of Things (IoT) platforms

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.

IoT and the rapidly reducing price of solar PV have made access to efficient irrigation easier. Solar water pumps for sustainable like SunCulture’s RainMaker2 benefit farmers with their in-built platform, ClimateSmart. The platform uses soil sensors and internet-connected weather stations. It analyzes 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.

Substantiating these benefits, a recent study in India reported that 45% of farmers using solar pumps for sustainable 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. However, for other farmers, 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 irrigation 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. As a consequence, 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.”

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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. Indeed, enormous economic and environmental benefits will follow thanks to solar water pumps irrigation.

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.”

Written by the Gogla team

GOGLA was created to accelerate access to modern energy, in line with the Sustainable Development Goal 7. They strive to be the voice of the fast growing sector, representing over 135 companies and organizations within the solar lighting and home electrification industry. Learn more about them here.