Some Hits and a Few Misses – Solar-powered System for Irrigation and Processing Grains

Untimely and inadequate irrigation is a key constraint to improving agricultural productivity among small farmers. Having identified this gap, the aim of our intervention was to provide farmers with assured access to irrigation through a community solar-powered pump. This was meant to ensure cultivation in all three cropping seasons – rabi crops during winter, kharif crops during monsoon, and zaid crops in the summer – in the year and encourage the adoption of high-value crops. The excess energy from the solar panels installed for the irrigation pump would be further utilised to run a pulveriser that could be used by all households in the village to grind flour and spices.
Through this intervention implemented in partnership with the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), we identified a group of 12 farmers who predominantly grew cereal crops such as rice, wheat and maize in Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich district. They were provided with a 5HP pump that would be owned by the community and could be used to irrigate a combined area of 16 acres in a pay-as-you-go model. The excess energy from these panels, when the pump was not in use, would then be used to operate a 3HP multi-purpose pulveriser to process the food grains and spices.
Six farmers in the group already owned diesel pumps, the other six depended on the former for their irrigation needs. This arrangement meant that the farmers that owned diesel pumps cultivated crops in all three seasons, while the others did so only during the kharif and rabi seasons. The small farmers often leased the diesel pumps and paid for fuel, or purchased water at high costs from those that owned diesel pumps, which resulted in inadequate irrigation and lower crop yields. Besides adding to the farm input costs, diesel pumps were also labour-intensive and contributed to carbon emissions. Using the solar-powered pumps, water would be distributed through a network of buried pipelines, eliminating the need for flexible pipes laid over long distances and farmers could avoid the drudgery of transporting the pump to their respective fields. This would also minimise the loss of water when compared to the open channel irrigation distribution system.
Furthermore, the grinding of grains and spices was a laborious task often left to the women of the household. They would often travel long distances to reach the closest mill, only to find out that the milling facility was closed due to a power outage. Some of them paid higher prices to have their grains ground at diesel-powered mills. The solar-powered system would therefore tackle both the issue of inadequate irrigation and address the community’s grinding needs as well.
Initially, the project was a success and fulfilled its objectives, however, our model failed over time due to external factors such as extreme climatic conditions and the farmers’ dependence on the new pulveriser. In the first two months of the solar-powered system, which coincided with the rabi season in 2021, there was zero utilisation of diesel generators and 50 per cent of the farmers used the pulveriser to grind their grains. At this stage, the objective was to provide better irrigation access, and distribute water efficiently through the underground piping system, thereby reducing the farmers’ dependence on diesel pumps.
One person from the farmers’ group was assigned to manage the solar pump and handle the finances. They would also be responsible for operating the pulveriser during periods when the pump was not in use to ensure effective utilisation of the energy generated from the solar panels. The farmers in the group eventually switched from diesel to solar pumps since irrigation needs for the cereal crops were met during the rabi season. During the harvesting period, the pulveriser was operated to process the grains of a few farmers.
In the following four months during the zaid season or the summer cropping season, the demand for irrigation was much higher. Additionally, the farmers had shifted to cultivating cash crops and vegetables due to assured irrigation. The demand for irrigation increased further in the summer, and during this time, the pump was prioritised over the pulveriser. Parallely, several farmers in the group had come to rely on the services of the pulveriser. As a result, it became difficult for the operator to balance the demand for both irrigation and processing. Ultimately, the solar pump was unable to meet the irrigation requirement of all 16 acres of land; about 10 per cent of the irrigation needs were met using diesel pumps. A similar situation prevailed during the kharif season. In July and August 2022, nearly 100 per cent of the power generated from the solar panels was used in irrigation owing to a severe dry spell. Additionally, diesel pumps were used at night and the pulveriser was not used at all during this period.
For this intervention, we leveraged our experience in long-term, sustainable decentralised renewable energy (DRE) solutions. Through what we considered a holistic energy solution, Sustain Plus Energy Foundation (SPEF) addressed the farmers’ need for reliable irrigation along with the added benefit of food processing. Our partners, AKF along with the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, had piloted over 60 community-based solar-powered irrigation systems in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh. However, at the design level, we erroneously assumed that the solar pump would be operational for no more than 250 days per year to fulfil the irrigation requirements of the farmer group. However, in the face of increasing demands for processing, it became difficult to strike a balance between the demand for irrigation and the need for the pulveriser.
The situation worsened when adverse weather conditions demanded that the pump be operated on a priority basis, which led to a grinding halt of milling services. During the programme design process, the groundwater table was a key assumption that determined the number of days that the solar panels would be used for irrigation versus grain processing, and the number of farmers that the pump would serve. External factors like the prolonged dry spell coupled with the high consumer demand was a confounding variable. These were factors that had to be considered while designing the system and deciding the capacity, in order to get the most benefit. It was initially assumed that whenever the pumping operation was a priority, the processing operation would be put on hold until the irrigation requirements were met.
The learnings from the programme show us that the community model of irrigation powered by solar energy works and the productive use of excess energy was a viable strategy. However, when we introduced the pulveriser into the equation, in a bid to maximise the use of solar energy, things did not go as planned. This was largely because we did not anticipate the high demand for the pulveriser, furthermore, the demand for irrigation during the dry spell left no excess energy to run the pulveriser as we had envisioned.