Energy efficiency applied to agriculture : towards a second green revolution in India ?

Loïc Chappoz, 2012

Collection Passerelle

The power outage that affected 600 million Indians on July 31, 2012, highlighted the extreme weaknesses of an Indian network that is struggling to cope with rapidly growing demand. Electricity consumption has multiplied by 2.4 in ten years and, given the difficulties in developing adequate means of production, controlling electricity demand is becoming imperative for each sector of the economy.

With 21% of the country’s GDP in 2011, agriculture is one of the drivers of the Indian economy. It is also the third most electricity-consuming sector (17% in 2011) and its demand for electricity has increased by 77% in the last ten years. At the same time, this energy is used less and less efficiently : in 2011, 14% more electricity was needed to generate one euro of agricultural wealth than in 20041. This drift can be partly explained by a highly subsidized price for selling electricity to farmers, which is generally lower than for other consumers. Farmers therefore have no incentive to reduce electricity consumption on their farms. Most of the electricity consumed by Indian farms is due to pumps used for irrigation. The interest in improving the efficiency of these pumps is therefore twofold: on the one hand, to relieve the power grid and, on the other, to reduce the pressure on public finances.

A potential for savings demonstrated in the field

In 2009, the NGO International Energy Initiative conducted an energy conservation project on fifty small farms in the Bangalore region of India. The objectives were to replace existing irrigation pumps with more efficient models, implement efficient irrigation systems, and reduce the amount of inputs used. Of the fifty farms, 33 used electric pumps to draw water from the groundwater, one had a hand pump, and 16 had never been irrigated. The existing pumps were old and inefficient in terms of energy used relative to the water flow delivered.

The first step of the project was to replace the existing pumps with the most efficient pump model available on the market and to install an efficient electric pump on the farm that was previously irrigated manually. The remaining 16 farms were connected to four wells equipped with electric pumps to enable their irrigation. In total, IEI installed 38 new electric pumps and enabled the irrigation of all cultivated land.

Along with the replacement of the pumps, the irrigation systems were upgraded. On 51 of the 111 acres2 under cultivation, the old large-diameter pipes were replaced with micro irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation. The amount of water used was thus reduced by about 60% on the equipped plots. Taking into account the newly irrigated land (all the plots that had no irrigation were equipped) and the land that was still irrigated with the old system, the overall water saving represents 22% of the initial consumption. This reduction in water needs has generated a further reduction in energy needs, and the combination of these two actions has produced spectacular results. Electricity consumption for pumps was reduced by 41.5%3. In an average year with 300 days of irrigation, electricity consumption fell from 312 MWh (megawatt hours) to 183 MWh. The final consumption reduction of 129 MWh corresponds to the average annual consumption of 237 people in India4. Taking into account a loss of about 33% on the electrical grid between the power plants and the farms, the production needs for irrigation are reduced from 466 MWh to 272 MWh, or an avoided production of 194 MWh per year for fifty small farms. Based on these results, IEI proposes to subsidize the purchase of efficient equipment, rather than the electricity consumed by the farmers. Indeed, the fact that farmers pay well below the market price for electricity encourages them to buy the cheapest pumps on the market, ignoring their inefficiency.

Towards the widespread use of efficient pumps ?

Like IEI, India’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) finds that the majority of pumps used in agriculture are inefficient and that low electricity prices do not encourage farmers to improve this situation. He estimates that replacing 20 million pumps with more efficient models would save 2.6 billion euros 5 per year, allowing a reduction in subsidies of the same amount. But rather than using subsidies as IEI suggests, EEB is trying to create the conditions for replacing existing pumps through market instruments.

An agricultural demand side management (Ag-DSM) program has been designed to promote the financing of the necessary investments by energy service companies (ESCOs), or by the energy suppliers themselves, through public-private partnerships.

A pilot project was launched in 2009 in the Solapur district of Maharashtra state. It aims to replace 2,600 pumps. The first results, available in March 2012, show encouraging results. At that date, 1,453 pumps had been replaced and an additional 100 were being installed. For the first 1,400 pumps installed, energy savings amounted to 25% of the initial consumption. Based on the same water consumption 6, the annual savings amount to 4,850 MWh, which is the average annual electricity consumption of almost 9,000 people in India. Unfortunately, the financial details were not available at the time of writing, so it is not possible to know whether the goal of financing the pumps from the savings will be achieved.

In India, the potential for energy savings by replacing inefficient irrigation pumps is enormous. Based on BEE’s initial findings, replacing the 20 million pumps would save the electricity consumption of an average of 127 million people in India each year. Coupled with improved irrigation techniques, the potential could be even greater, while providing substantial water savings.

There is, however, a significant risk of a rebound effect : farmers saving water and energy will inevitably tend to invest in irrigating land that is not yet irrigated. But if this additional irrigation follows the example of the IEI pilot project, the benefits to Indian society will be significant, while controlling the increase in electricity and water demand. The amount of energy used to generate one euro of agricultural wealth could then decrease again. These investments in the efficiency of pumps used in agriculture must, however, go hand in hand with significant investments in improving the means of producing, transporting and distributing electricity. Indeed, as IEI has shown, the quality of the electricity supplied has a real influence on the life span of pumps and on the cost of their maintenance. Neglecting this aspect could therefore, at best, limit the gains made by modernizing pumps, at worst, discourage farmers and authorities from making the necessary investments.

1 Statistics source : author’s calculation from Enerdata database.

2 1 acre = 4046 m2.

3 The consumption of the old pumps, measured over a three-month period during the dry season, was compared to the consumption of the new equipment over a comparable period (three months in the dry season).

4 Based on an average electricity consumption of 544 kWh per year per capita. Source : Author’s calculations based on data from Enerdata databases.

5 18,000 crores, or 180 billion rupees.

6 The new pumps installed have a higher flow rate, so they have to run for less time than the old ones to bring the same amount of water to the crops.

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