Business models developed and refined over several years offer a promising framework to realize the transformative potential of solar irrigation pumps.
Solar irrigation pumps have received significant attention in India over the past decade where they are perceived as a more affordable, reliable and climate-smart alternative to conventional diesel pumps. However, there are concerns that efforts to increase uptake are not sufficiently ‘pro-poor’ and instead favor well-connected farmers with the means to invest in this technology. There are also fears that widening access without also considering the efficient management of water resources could exacerbate over-pumping and groundwater depletion. Decision makers need to strike a delicate balance.
With the help of CGIAR partners – the IWMI-Tata Water Policy Research Program and CCAFS – WLE researchers developed and refined farmer-centric business models over several years that both incentivize efficient water use and enhance smallholder access to the benefits of solar-powered irrigation. The models are tailored to two main contexts.
The first targets grid-connected water-scarce areas with rampant groundwater depletion where high power subsidies have encouraged farmers to over-pump. In these areas farmers are encouraged to pool the surplus energy they have generated and sell it back to the grid. The second is applied in off-grid areas of relative water abundance where farmers with solar pumps, through a village-level informal water market, can sell surplus irrigation water to neighboring farmers.
The opportunity to generate additional income through the sale of surplus water and energy acts as a powerful incentive to pump water more efficiently. Benefits extend beyond entrepreneur farmers: in water-scarce areas a more sustainable groundwater extraction regime was established and in areas of relative water abundance pump-less farmers applied additional water to strengthen their climate resilience and diversify and intensify their crop production. The resulting higher productivity and yields also generated increased demand for rural labor. These benefits were noted and WLE’s climate-smart approach was later adopted in ambitious national and state level programs that are aiming to distribute solar irrigation pumps to millions of farmers.
Irrigation, groundwater irrigation and electricity subsidies will be important to the widespread uptake of new technologies, and public funds will need to be shifted to these from their current allocations. Reducing the costs of an initial subsidy to encourage buy-in from farmers and partnering with a financial institution to offer low interest loans is also effective.
Rather than gradually target individual farmers, distribution efforts will have to saturate villages with solar pump irrigation grids to crowd out diesel tube wells. In the off-grid model it is also important to establish groups of up to 15 entrepreneurial farmers as solar irrigation service providers and create a competitive water market that offers pump-less farmers irrigation at an affordable price.
Collaboration is also key: planners and water managers must work closely with utility companies to guarantee surplus energy is purchased in the on-grid model and encourage joined-up thinking among relevant government ministries so there is a wider recognition of synergies. National governments should also offer financial support and develop a framework to facilitate the wider promotion and scaling-up of distribution efforts. Finally, the capacities of farmers need to be strengthened so they can maintain solar panels and irrigation pipes, use water more efficiently and become more financially literate.
Programs attempting to widen access to solar irrigation pumps are still in their infancy. This means more analysis is needed to understand constraints and opportunities and further refine approaches. WLE’s approach is not the only solar pump strategy being implemented – and the rich data emerging from a range of initiatives offers valuable insights on farmer behaviors and other trends that researchers can consider as they explore options to enhance uptake.