Sun empowers Maharashtra farmers

By Sapna Gopal

Electricity for farm work is now solar-powered by the state power distribution company. The success of this initiative can be a model for other states.

Small solar plants near farms work better than individual solar-powered irrigation pumps. Photo credit; MSEDCL.

Unable to stop providing free electricity to farmers for political reasons, some state governments in India have separated the electricity lines for farm work in an effort to control subsidies. Now the western state of Maharashtra has started powering these separate lines through solar PV, installed in sub-stations of the state government-owned distribution company (discom).

The move has reduced power supply uncertainty to farmers – crucially, they don’t have to get out of bed at odd hours to switch on irrigation pumps. Given the falling cost of solar power and the fact that transmission and distribution (T&D) losses are minimised by producing the electricity locally, the discom has reduced its subsidy burden.

Together, it is a bit of good news in a state notorious for the suicides of farmers unable to repay their loans, and now for being unable to make any profit for what they have produced because they have produced so much especially sugarcane.

Over the past few years, the Maharashtra discom has been supplying power through these separate lines – called “agricultural feeders” – for eight hours during the day and 10 hours at night, by rotation. That means each week, each farmer gets power during the daylight hours for three days, and at night for four days. There have been several protests by farmers compelled to work at night.

For nearly 10,000 farmers who are getting power from this scheme, this problem is now over. Over the next three to five years, the discom is planning to provide power to around 750,000 farmers, in the next three to five years, says Ashwin Gambhir, Fellow, Prayas Energy Group, a think tank based in Pune, Maharashtra.

Chandrashekhar Bawankule, Maharashtra’s energy minister, told the recent Agro Vision 2018 meet that the solar farms in the electricity sub-stations are being set up in public-private partnership mode under the Chief Minister’s Solar Agriculture Feeder Policy (Mukhyamantri Saur Krushi Vahini Yojana or MSKVY).

The incentive for the private developers of these solar farms is that they will not have to pay property tax for 30 years.

Sanjeev Kumar, Managing Director, Maharashtra State Electricity Development Corporation Limited (MSEDCL), told indiaclimatedialogue.net that the corporation had identified sub-stations that have over 10,000 square metres, making it possible to set up 0.5MW to 2MW solar plants within the premises. It has added up to a potential 200MW.

Kumar pointed out that with farmers now being able to run their irrigation pumps during the day, they can switch off when they don’t need more water. Pumps being left on overnight and flooding the fields with far more water than needed has been a major problem in the state and much of India.

With solar power generated from these plants fed directly fed to sub-station and then to the agricultural feeders, farmers also get better voltage, so their pumps work more efficiently. And on cloudy days, when generation from the solar cells is low, they can fall back upon the grid. Conversely, when generation is high, the extra power flows back to the grid.

“This is a big plus for the state government and the discom – it will save direct budgetary subsidy and cross-subsidy,” Gambhir told me.

The discom is buying all the electricity with 25-year contracts after choosing the private generators through competitive bidding.

Extra income too

Apart from the sub-stations, farmers can get together to form cooperatives and lease a plot for such solar power stations, earning a rent. MSEDCL thinks this scheme is better than asking farmers to buy their own solar-powered irrigation pumps, because it takes away all maintenance costs. For the state government, too, it saves the subsidies it would otherwise be giving to farmers to buy these pumps.

“Our analysis for Maharashtra shows that this approach saves a subsidy of about Rs 10,000 (USD 139) per year per pump. The state government or discom can use this saving for other pro-farmer measures,” says Gambhir.

There are around 430,000 farmers being served through agricultural feeders in Maharashtra, using about 30% of the electricity produced in the state. MSEDCL is buying solar power for this scheme at Rs 3 (USD 0.04) per unit, which is less than the average purchase cost. Plus, there is a 15% reduction in T&D losses, Kumar informed.

A model

Now that the electricity grid has reached every village in India and agriculture feeders are being separated across the country, this model can be replicated in other states, says Gambhir. The central government has proposed a similar scheme under its Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahaabhiyan (KUSUM), with a target of 10,000MW.

And now there is money for it, too. The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) has got USD100 million from the UN’s Green Climate Fund (GCF) to push rooftop solar power capacity across India. It plans to use a part of that in a USD250 million project to roll out similar solar plants in sub-stations across the country for agricultural feeders, a project to be executed by Tata Cleantech Capital Ltd.

The agreement with GCF was signed by Shankar A Pande, Chief General Manager, NABARD in the presence of A.K. Mehta, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) at an event held on the sidelines of the UN climate summit (COP24) held in Katowice, Poland, last December.

First published at India Climate Dialogue.

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4 responses to “Sun empowers Maharashtra farmers

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