Solar-powered irrigation

SunEdison’s solar water pump program starts to show positive results for Indian farmers

solar water pumps

Few stories I heard at the recent Solar Power International show intrigued and inspired me as much as SunEdison’s Solar Water Pump initiative in India. When the company’s Dawn Brister told me about the new agriculture-focused rural electrification campaign, I immediately saw the synergies between several of the most pressing challenges in the developing world: access to clean electricity and clean, abundant water as well as the need to increase crop yields. She mentioned that the irrigation pumps have already been introduced to at least 19 villages in different parts of the country, as the second phase of the ongoing effort was about to come to a close.

SunEdison formally launched the program last week, and the accompanying press release provided some additional info. “An intelligent pump controller continuously monitors power available from solar PV modules and drives a high-efficiency three-phase AC pump at variable speeds to use every watt of power available and provide water through the day,” according to the release. “Rugged industrial design ensures reliable performance in the most adverse operating conditions and ensures reliable and safe operation for over 15 years, while allowing for easy maintenance.” The units come in 3, 5, 7.5, and 10-horsepower configurations.

For his recently posted follow-up article about the solar water pumps initiative, Greentech Media’s Herman Trabish interviewed Pashupathy Shankar Gopalan, SunEdison‘s managing director for South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, who provided more color about the project and the related policy and subsidy situation in India. The exec noted that the program already has at least 250 systems operational in five Indian states. “The benefits make it possible to pay off a system in two-and-a-half to three years, because based on actual experience working with farmers in India, it can increase farm yields by up to 400%,” he said

The more you read about the use of the pumps, the more compelling the plan sounds. “Variability is not an obstacle for this solar application because water does not need to be pumped every day of a growing season,” Gopalan told GTM. “’There are about 60 to 70 days when weather conditions prevent the solar water pump systems from working. About half those days, it is raining. Pumping is unnecessary when it is raining. The other half of those days, it is cloudy or overcast. We have not yet determined whether that is a tolerable factor, but we expect it is.’”

SunEdison has released a six-minute video about the program (embedded below and posted on You Tube here), which features interviews with participating farmers, time-lapse snippets of installations, and travel documentary-style footage. The contrast of experiences between the farmer in dry and dusty Rajasthan and his counterpart in verdant Tamil Nadu underscores the inherent suitability and flexibility of the solar water pumps for a wide range of agricultural conditions.

Although the Indian market for solar water pumps is large, the global opportunity is huge, with Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America all emerging markets for this game-changing platform. Wouldn’t it be great to see inefficient electric pumps and especially those dirty, expensive diesel beasts give way to the photovoltaic-powered pumping alternatives provided by SunEdison and other companies?