Clean Tech

Solarisation of agriculture through feeder separation

M Ramesh | Updated on September 08, 2020 Published on September 08, 2020

Sizzling possibilities Solar feeder separation’ is the biggest mega trend in India’s energy sector today   -  AVIJIT BAITALIK

Putting up utility-scale solar power plants and supplying power from them to farmers could be a win-win for all, says M Ramesh

Recent trends in providing energy to the agriculture sector can best be described by using a cliché: paradigm shift.

As long as it was clear that the present system of providing free or ultra-low-priced electricity to farmers cannot be tampered with, given the politically sensitive nature of the issue, it was initially believed that solar power could provide a way out. The sun provides electricity to run the pumps and nobody pays for the energy — was the argument. The question distilled to who will pay for the pump.

Wise men decided that the Central and State governments would pay 90 per cent of the cost of the pumps and the farmer would only have to bring in the other 10 per cent from his pocket. The governments would have to find the money for their 90 per cent. It didn’t work out — because the 10 per cent proved to be heavy on the farmer’s wallet. The ‘10 per cent’ often worked out to around ₹45,000; which farmer would willingly dump his well-running pump and fork out the money when he was anyway getting electricity free or dirt cheap?

So, in a country that has over 20 million agriculture pumps and another 7.5 million powered by diesel, only 1,80,000 solar pumps have come into being (as of October 2019).

While the situation was getting jinxed, two separate trends were taking place elsewhere in India’s energy economy. The first was, utility-scale solar tariffs were falling to incredibly low levels. In November 2015, when the renewable energy company SunEdison, won a solar tender by quoting ₹4.63 a kWhr, its competitors were gnashing their teeth over such an “irresponsible” quote. Few believed then that solar tariffs could fall further. Today, solar and wind prices have well settled down at prices between ₹2.50 and ₹3, not in the least thanks to the steep fall in prices of solar modules made in China.

The second was less visible. A ‘feeder separation’ programme came into being, under which utilities would put up separate transmission lines to supply power to agriculture. Of the 4,27,410 circuit km of transmission lines, 1,00,318 ckm of ‘feeder separation’ was completed as of end of 2019. So, you have three trend lines — solar pumps getting nowhere, utility-scale solar becoming really cheap and separate feeders for supplying electricity to agriculture.

The synthesis of these three has thrown up an obvious answer: put up utility-scale solar power plants and supply power from them to farmers — nicely during the day time unlike the nocturnal free power they were getting — and let’s reserve standalone solar pumps for areas where this is not possible.

How the concept works

This synthesis is called ‘solar feeder separation’ and is the biggest mega trend in India’s energy sector today. How it works is like this: a solar plant, of 1 MW or 2 MW capacity, is installed near the substation and is connected to the dedicated agriculture feeder at the substation. A 1 MW plant, which would need 5 acres of land, can supply power to 350 pumps of 5 hp capacity. Farmers get day-time supply, while the electricity supply companies (discoms) spend a lot less on solar power than otherwise.

For instance, in Maharashtra, where this solar feeder has taken root, the state discom spent ₹4.35 a kWhr on an average for all the power it purchased from generators; in contrast, it has contracted solar power at ₹3.15 a kWhr, to supply to farmers. And, by the way, ₹3.15 is today pretty good for a solar energy company. Maharashtra is leading solar feeder development in the country with over 3,000 MW of solar feeder projects in various stages of development, including over 1,200 MW capacity under construction.

Furthermore, if the farmer leases a piece of his land for a solar plant, or better still, if he owns the solar plant also, there is a lot of money to be made by him. In this way, barren or less productive land could be put to good use. This is all the more important now, because the government has brought in major reforms in agriculture, abolishing stock holding limits, allowing farmers to sell their produce anywhere and allowing contract farming. These agriculture reforms, often compared to the epochal industrial reforms of 1991, are expected to result in a boom in the farm sector in a few years, calling for more energy.

Shantanu Dixit, an analyst at the Pune, Maharashtra based energy think-tank, Prayas Energy, sees this trend picking up momentum. He notes that Rajasthan and Haryana are following the example of Maharashtra. Rajasthan has announced a target of 2,600 MW of solar feeder capacity under the government of India’s ‘Kusum’ programme (which essentially encourages solar power for agriculture by providing a subsidy.) PPAs for about 700 MW of solar capacity are being processed. Likewise, Haryana wants to do 10,000 MW.

“Solar feeder is a very cost-effective, scalable and fast implementable approach for solarisation of agricultural pumps, especially in States where feeder separation has been done,” observes Dixit. “Standalone solar pumps could be suitable in cases where groundwater is not too deep and farms are away from the grid,” he says.

A life-saver for discoms

There is but one word of caution. The architecture of solar feeder includes a tie-in with the existing grid lines, so that on a cloudy day the farmer still gets power from the grid and during rainy months the solar energy company would sell back the power to the grid — even if at much lower rates.

NK Ranganath, who headed the Indian operations of Danish water pump multinational, Grundfos, until a few months ago (and is now a ‘Grundfos Water Ambassador’), stresses that “it may not be a good idea to have non-grid-tied, independent solar power generation, unless the density of pumps is very high in an area.” All the same, he welcomes the feeder separation plan for agriculture connections, whether powered by solar or conventional sources. The Ministry of Power is said to be keen on taking solar feeder approach nationwide. It could potentially mean a life-saver for bleeding discoms, while not twiddling with the politics of power. What would you call this but a ‘paradigm shift’?

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Published on September 08, 2020
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