Sustainable Agriculture: Unlocking the potential of renewable energy
With rampant globalization, and increase in human population, resources are being taxed; these resources include infrastructure, natural resources, energy sources, and the list goes on. However, though solutions for conservation of the environment have been made public, far and wide, the effective and timely application of these solutions is vital. For this, not only are awareness and the practicality, but also the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of the solutions are important.
As far as India goes, approximately 70% of the population resides in rural areas and is involved in the primary sector of the Indian economy; agriculture. This emphasizes the importance and use of renewable sources of energy, among other sustainable agricultural practices. Out of the total water consumption by human beings, 93 percent is used for irrigation. Majority of this water is extracted ground water, which requires energy input.
In off grid areas, the major energy input for irrigation is diesel pumps which attract high operating and maintenance costs, increasing the cost of cultivation beyond threshold levels, especially for small and marginal farmers. Even two thirds of the grid energy is generated by non-sustainable fossil fuel: coal. Both energy inputs, grid and diesel leave high carbon foot prints behind.
Grid and diesel operated pumps are not only non-eco-friendly but also create huge pressure on the nation’s economy. The government spends approximately USD 6 billion in a year on subsidizing these energy inputs (Hyeon-Sook Shim, Global Green Growth Institute). Because of subsidised prices, farmers do not value the energy inputs, as well as the extracted ground water. The GOI is promoting the use of solar powered irrigation pumps, but there are some barriers faced by small and marginal farmers to adopt these. The high initial cost of a solar pump is the biggest challenge to deal with.
Despite the initiatives taken by the government to provide subsidy on the capital cost through various schemes and programs, the pace of adoption is still slow. The main reason has been the complex modality of availing these subsidies. Most of the subsidies under the National Solar Mission are credit linked, which means farmers must take loans from financial institutions, mainly banks, and subsidy is parked in the loan account. This complexity often creates hurdles for small and marginal farmers as either they are defaulters of the banks (crop loans, equipment loans etc) or they are asked to mortgage their land, which they are not willing to do. Sometimes, local rural branches deny the loans for the scheme showing unawareness about the scheme or the directives. The need of the hour is to design farmer friendly policies to foster the growth of the sector.
The service providers are important stakeholders in this eco system and are coming up with different models for simplifying the process to afford solar irrigation pumps on community basis such as based on the service based delivery model or cluster based mini grid cum irrigation models. These models run on the principles of creating incentives for all stakeholders in the eco-system and maximise energy and water usage efficiency. These models have shown potential and initial success in some pockets of Bihar and Gujrat, but still there are miles to go for large scale adoption.
Use of renewable energy is the key to get clean, sustainable and affordable energy inputs for the farming sector. The pace of using renewable energy in agriculture is increasing, but on a slow pace. The Indian government is also applying efforts to replace the conventional energy sources with renewable energy sources by
swapping 26 million diesel pumps with solar pumps for irrigation. This swapping potential of solar powered irrigation pumps may be the largest sector for solar energy application in India. This potential of the sector not only will impact the environment, economy and the society, but also has more developmental aspects. It will provide a boost to the agriculture produce. The most promising and positive aspect of this sectoral growth is that it has a potential to create new business and job creation opportunities in rural India contributing to increased incomes and rural livelihoods. All that is needed is to come up with geographically, economically and socially suited innovative models, which have high replicability.
It brings to mind a famous quote by Thomas Edison way back in 1931: “I had put my money on the sun and solar energy; what a source of power. I hope we do not have to wait till oil and coal run out, before we tackle that.” Indeed, food-for-thought.
Program Lead: Sustainable Agriculture Development
Subhash Chandra Foundation