Farmers in Telangana like others in the country have been struggling for the past few years from droughts and unpredictable rainfall. Adding to their woes was the irregular supply of electricity. Many politicians from erstwhile Andhra Pradesh prophesied that Telangana would have power deficit if the State was bifurcated.
Hence, it must have been music to the farmers’ ears when Telangana this year announced uninterrupted power supply for free to farmers.
However, the announcement by the State government has raised many questions about the potential depletion of groundwater because of the unregulated pumping of water with this free power. This depletion of groundwater could, in turn, lead to more expenses for the farmers who would have to drill deeper borewells.
Also, for now, the State could provide this uninterrupted electricity using fossil fuel but questions need to be asked — for how long and at what cost will this continue?
Auto-starters in Pumps
Recent reports suggest that this initiative resulted in an increase of 30 million units of power just in the first few weeks of its implementation. Most of it is attributed to the auto-starters in the pumps whose removal the government has now sought as it believes it is no longer required by farmers.
There is no denying that farmers should be provided uninterrupted power supply just like in cities and industries. However, the nature of its provision as a free resource should be debated.
The inevitability of climate change means an increase in unpredictable weather patterns leading to droughts and increasing temperature, which in turn leads to uncertainty over the availability of water. It is, therefore, pertinent that policies should aim at ensuring optimal utilisation of water and preventing its misuse. And this is no longer science fiction. Take the example of Cape Town in South Africa, which come April will become the first city in modern world to go dry.
The only silver lining in this effort to provide 24-hour free electricity to farmers is the simultaneous attempt by the Telangana government on implementing rainwater harvesting pits and restoring the existing dug wells for recharge, which can greatly contribute to increasing the groundwater level.
According to the Telangana Solar Policy, the State has vast solar potential with an average solar insolation of nearly 5.5 kWh/m2 for more than 300 sunshine days. This makes solar pumps an extremely viable solution in Telangana. A solar pump connected to the power grid with net metering can resolve not only the problem of uninterrupted power supply but can also help in giving an additional income to farmers. Net metering allows customers who generate their own electricity from solar power to feed electricity they do not use back into the grid.
By saving energy and running water pumps only when required (thereby saving water), they can send the harnessed additional energy to the power grid and get paid for it. Net metering thus can become the incentive that will make sure that the pumps are not run all the time and water is not wasted. Net metering will also help the farmer get an additional income during non-farming seasons as well.
In India, a lot of farms are still remote and have no access to electricity, and are at times dependent on diesel generators. It is in such places that a solar pump would provide access to water immediately. These pumps can then be connected to the grid once established under the Saubhagya scheme, launched by the Central government last year.
One of the reasons that net metering is not being widely used in solar pumps is the increase in the cost of the system because of the need for a bidirectional meter. A bidirectional meter helps in calculating the energy that is being sent back to the grid when the solar panel on the pump is not being used. However, if a State government decides to procure and install bidirectional meters for all the solar pumps, then the cost of manufacturing and procurement will come down drastically.
While solar parks, which the various State governments are promoting on a massive scale, are good to bring down the costs because of sheer volumes, in future it would also depend on the availability of new land. Besides the losses in transmission are high. On the other hand, solar pumps, which are decentralised do not need new land, and therefore, the loss in transmission is minimised.
At the Central government level, India has committed to producing 100 Gigawatt of solar energy by 2022. Moreover, as part of the Paris Climate agreement, signed in 2015, India has initiated the International Solar Alliance mainly to aggregate demand for decentralised solar pumps and distribute them in more than 121 countries.
So, the State policy to provide free power to farmers from fossil fuel is not in sync with the global agenda. By providing solar pumps, the State government can meet not only its clean energy targets made in the State Action Plans but also provide clean, uninterrupted supply to the farmers.
Providing 24-hour power with fossil fuel might be an instant solution but in the long-run, it is unsustainable. A State will prosper when you have an independent farmer with reduced input costs who will use water and energy efficiently and will contribute to the growth of his village and nation by supplying the energy back to the grid.
(The author works for climate reality, and is a clean energy and climate policy expert. @Rakeshkamal)