Powering agriculture via solar feeders -Ashwin Gambhir & Shantanu Dixit
-The Hindu Business Line
They not only provide a reliable supply of electricity, but will also help reduce the subsidy outgo of States
Two-thirds of the total irrigated area in India uses groundwater pumping, powered by more than two crore electric and 75 lakh diesel pumps. Access to groundwater depends on reliable and affordable electricity supply. This is an important issue as it concerns livelihoods of the rural poor and food security of the country. Agriculture is a major consumer of electricity, accounting for one-fourth or one-third of consumption in many States.
Since the 1970s, agriculture in many States has been receiving electricity at either low tariffs or for free. Much of this supply is un-metered. Due to the lower tariff and poor revenue collection, agricultural sales are often seen as a major reason for the financial losses of distribution companies (discoms).
Part of this loss is then recovered through higher tariffs for other consumers like industry and commercial (called cross-subsidy), and the remaining through direct subsidy from the State governments. Because it is seen as a loss-making sector, agriculture often gets poor quality supply leading to problems such as frequent pump burn-outs and power failures. Restoring supply takes a lot of time and so does getting new connections. Further, the supply is unreliable and often available during late nights. All these factors make farmers distrustful of discoms.
Electricity demand for agriculture is expected to double in the next 10 years and as the average cost of supply keeps increasing, the problem of agriculture subsidies will become worse. Unless new ideas are tried out, the quality of electricity supply to agriculture will worsen. Any solution must first provide reliable, adequate day-time electricity supply to farmers at reasonable tariff, leading to a gradual increase in the mutual trust between the discom and the farmer. This should also reduce the subsidy requirement for it to be truly scalable across the country.
Three ongoing developments allow for an exciting possibility. One, low cost electricity from solar, at ?2.75-3/unit and at a fixed price contract for 25 years due to absence of any fuels is already a reality.
Second, States have to exponentially increase their solar procurement to fulfil the national objective of increasing the use of solar power.
Finally, the grid has reached every village in India and agriculture feeder separation, where lines carrying electricity to pumps and villages are physically separated, has progressed significantly, with nearly two-third of the target completed.
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