When the plunging mercury set new records in the Ganganagar district of Rajasthan and people shivered even in their warm quilts, Satveer Singh, a 50-year-old farmer from Mohanpura village, had to visit his wheat field late at night to irrigate the crop. The reason, he argues, is electricity supply which usually comes at night for agricultural work.
Singh says that many people in the village have lost their lives due to snakebites and other such accidents when they stepped out at night for irrigating their fields. “My pain is nothing compared to those fellows,” he says. He hopes the government will understand their pain and provide electricity (for agriculture) in the daytime.
It is not an isolated demand. In Rajasthan, farmers have been struggling due to the odd schedule of power supply for agriculture for a long time. A couple of months ago, a group of farmers protested in the Ajmer district against power being supplied only at night.
In the latest Rajasthan state budget, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot admitted that the farmers are facing trouble as they are forced to irrigate their farmlands during the night. He promised to provide relief.
But this problem is not limited to Rajasthan and not only because of the cold weather.
The presence of wild animals when the farmers move out at night, also puts their lives at stake. This December, Chamundeshwari Electricity Supply Corporation in the Mysuru district of Karnataka had to modify the power supply timing for irrigation pump sets from night to morning hours. It happened after a fatal incident due to a leopard attack. Karnataka has been discussing the issue and planning to provide electricity to farmers in the daytime instead of at night.
Similarly, in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, many districts only get power supply at night. The state, in 2020, announced that it would supply eight hours of power to farmers during the daytime.
The issue of power supplied to farmers during the night is so big that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had to launch a programme in his home state of Gujarat with the promise of providing electricity to farmers during the daytime. Launched in 2020, the scheme Kisan Suryoday Yojna had a target of providing power supply targeted to agriculture to some 18,000 villages of the state by the end of 2022.
Agriculture And Electricity
Since Independence, India has seen several changes in all aspects of life. The change is also visible in agriculture, where the sector has become dependent on groundwater for irrigation. Pump sets powered by electricity and diesel have become an integral part of the agricultural system. The share of borewell irrigation was a mere 1% during 1960-61, and it reached 60% in 2008.
A recent study by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment says, “Nearly 90% of India’s total groundwater draft during a given year is used to irrigate 70% of the country’s total irrigated land area. The number of electric pumps increased exponentially to over 21 million.”
The agriculture sector in India consumes a significant portion of the total energy consumed in the country. In 2020-21, the agriculture sector consumed 18% of 12,27,000 GWh (Gigawatt hour). And the demand for agricultural electricity is increasing in India, says a 2019 study. The report said that in 2008-09, the sector consumed 107 billion units, reaching 205 billion units in 2017-18. Another Delhi-based think tank, The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), predicts that the electricity demand may reach 307 billion units in 2030.
Chairman of All India Power Engineers Federation, Shailendra Dubey says that the agriculture sector requires a significant amount of electricity. The agriculture sector gets electricity during the night to maintain the transmission load factor. Generally, the agriculture-related power supply is planned in two shifts. He added that half of the villages get electricity during the daytime and half at night.
Sunlight Offers Hope
Since renewable has become dominant in energy-related narratives in the country, it has offered new hope to millions of farmers who are termed the backbone of the country. India has launched a solar-based irrigation scheme named PM-KUSUM. It envisages solar-based pumps in rural areas. Under this demand-driven scheme, the government plans solarisation of 3.5 million agriculture pumps.
When the entire country is planning an energy transition, it offers another hope for farmers as a 2022 study predicts that moving the energy-related demand of the agricultural sector to daytime hours will drastically reduce the cost of the power sector.
Saying that this shift will save transition costs, the report Opportunities for Renewable Energy, Storage, Vehicle Electrification, and Demand Response in Rajasthan’s Power Sector advocates the same. The report published by National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) says, “Shifting agricultural load may allow an opportunity to provide more reliable electricity supply while maximising the use of the abundant in-state solar resources.”
Agricultural demand makes up nearly 50% of Rajasthan’s overall state electricity demand. The report claims that if this demand is shifted to daytime hours in the state, overall costs for the power sector can be 18% lower in Rajasthan and 1.5% lower across India by 2050.
When demand gets shifted to sunlight hours, less energy storage capacity and thermal capacity are needed to provide energy during evening hours. Unexpectedly, there is also less solar capacity built in the long term. This is because excess solar energy is used to charge storage. When evening demand is shifted, the study claims that less energy is needed to charge storage, and thus less overall solar capacity is needed to serve demand.
Relying on solar, a few states such as Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka have started giving additional solar energy for irrigation during the day.
Somit Dasgupta, a senior visiting fellow at the International Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) says that it will certainly be helpful to the distribution companies as evening and morning are usually the peak times in most states. Though the weather has a big role to play when it comes to solar, it can reduce the power purchase costs of discoms (distribution companies), and they can reduce their losses as such costs at peak times are maximum than non-peak hours, he adds.
In many agricultural electricity connections, the power comes either in the evening or at night. At night the power load is lower, and it might be the reason the agriculture sector gets supply at night, says an expert.
When you take solar power through decentralised route, you also save on transmission and distribution losses, which are very high in the grid. “If you use a pump with solar and what you are generating and giving the same to the grid, you will also have the benefit of selling the surplus solar,” he adds.
“If we shift to the daytime (solar peak hours), we can utilise the maximum amount of solar energy going into the grid. So, this will also ensure that we can reduce the load on fossil fuels and (have) less dependency on the need for extra battery storage systems,” adds Dasgupta.