Age of solar pump is here

Originally posted in The Financial Express on 25 April 2023

The technology is not new. In fact it has been around for some time. Although Bangladesh contributes less than 0.5 per cent of world’s carbon emissions, the country remains one of the most adversely climate-affected countries globally. Here lies the irony. Doing next to nothing to contribute to global emissions, Bangladesh remains at the receiving end of global warming. Despite significant industrialisation over the past few decades, this nation of nearly 170 million remains heavily dependent on agriculture for sustenance. With climate-induced changes come variations in weather pattern that play havoc with agro-output. Besides rise in salinity, there is the question of managing requisite water for irrigation. As annual rainfall has become erratic and dwindled with time, irrigation is overwhelmingly dependent on underground water.

Bangladesh has long been touted as a huge success case for its rapid adoption of solar home system (SHS). It has in fact, become home to one of the largest off-grid renewable energy network globally. That said the success of SHS has not been followed up by the adoption of solar water pumps which has the potential to be beneficial at different levels. As pointed out by an energy expert recently, the solar pump can cut irrigation by 40-50 per cent. Adoption of such pump can increase the cultivable land area and at the same time increase the growth and variety of crops. With cost savings, the technology holds the promise of enhancing the financial capacity of farmers. The use of a pump that draws power from the sun (an infinite source of renewable energy) can power irrigation systems that can ensure food security for farmers and increase energy security for the nation.

Given that Bangladesh already has a working model with SHS, why hasn’t a similar financial model been developed to create awareness and encourage greater adoption of the solar pump nationwide? When kerosene prices started rising, SHS was introduced with financial backing from multilateral agencies. Today over 6.5 million such systems are installed, and it is estimated that about 15 per cent of the population now enjoys the benefits of electric connection via solar power. The system works because payment for these systems is on a monthly-installment basis, and this is something that is within the financial capacity of people.

Working on the above situation and condition, solar-based irrigation pumps can address the major problems our agro-based economy is facing. Experts point out that approximately 1.3 million diesel-operated pumps are being used on agricultural lands. Compared to that massive figure, a paltry 2,800 or so Solar Irrigation Pumps (SIPs) are installed across the country, generating about 53.85 MW (megawatts) of electricity for solar irrigation. However, there is the scope of generating up to 6,500 MW for solar irrigation – and these hold the potential to replace all the diesel irrigation pumps in the country. Because, as pointed out by one energy expert, “each solar irrigation pump replaces a total of five shallow pumps and potentially over 1.3 million shallow pumps can easily be replaced by 260,000 Solar Irrigation Pumps by 2030.” If Bangladesh undertakes a roadmap to mass deploy SIPs, energy experts believe the target can be reached within 2030. With the transition to SIPs, the country can potentially prevent 20.8 million tonnes of carbon emissions. It can also save millions of dollars in diesel imports, especially at a time when the country is undergoing a severe dollar-crunch. One can only hope that energy planners will do what needs to be done to make the transition to this clean fuel.