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A smallholder farmer in India’s arid Gujarat state has started harvesting what could become the country’s most climate-smart cash crop yet – sunshine

Ramanbhai Parmar on his farm with his solar pump (Image by Prashanth Vishwanathan; Image courtesy IWMI)

Ramanbhai Parmar on his farm with his solar pump (Image by Prashanth Vishwanathan; Image courtesy IWMI)

Ramanbhai Parmar, a producer of wheat and banana in Gujarat’s Anand district, has become the first farmer in India to sell electricity back to the grid from the solar panels that drive his water pump.

He received Rs 7,500 (approx. $120) as his first payment for his ‘solar crop’ last week. Parmar made this income from 1,500 kWh of electricity generated by his solar panels for over four months.

The environmental benefits of Parmar’s initiative go beyond clean energy. With up to 3,000 hours of sunlight each year, Gujarat is one of India’s sunniest states. But extended hot, dry spells and increasingly unpredictable rains have made the life in the region tough for farmers. They have to pump underground water constantly. As a result, vital groundwater reserves are depleting at an exponential rate as most farmers take advantage of subsidised energy, often extracting more than they need.

There is a danger that the recent, rapid rise of solar-powered irrigation pumps – while providing a cleaner energy source than diesel pumps – could add to the problem because the energy is regarded as free. By giving farmers the opportunity to sell excess electricity generated by their solar pumps, experts hope it will encourage them to pump only the water they need. The buy-back scheme could also protect farm incomes in the event of crop failure, and if adopted widely, help relieve pressure on the state’s overburdened electricity board.

Parmar has shown the eco-friendly way to other producers in the state. It is estimated that if he had used this energy to run his pump instead, he would have extracted an additional eight million litres of groundwater. He received his payment from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), which led the pilot study in Gujarat.

“Solar crops are a very exciting example of a triple-win,” said IWMI senior fellow Tushaar Shah. “Farmers, the state, and precious water reserves all benefit from a single intervention. We know that India’s farmers are extremely responsive to incentives that improve productivity and incomes. By offering them the chance to sell the electricity generated by their solar-powered water pumps, we could make agriculture in India cleaner and greener.”

The initiative, known as SPaRC (Solar Power as a Remunerative Crop), offers farmers a guaranteed buy-back of the surplus solar power they produce, provided they are connected to the electricity grid. It is monitoring on-farm electricity generation, income, water efficiency and crop production as part of the pilot study.

SPaRC was established by IWMI as part of the CGIAR Research Programme on Water, Land and Ecosystems. It is managed by the IWMI-Tata Water Policy Programme and supported by Tata Trusts. The CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security has pledged additional support for scaling up the pilot project.

According to an estimate by IWMI, nationwide, around 11 million farmers currently connected to the electricity grid could, in principle, install solar-powered water pumps and sell the surplus energy they produce. Widespread adoption of this approach will depend upon multiple factors, including the commitment of local electricity companies. The pilot project has demonstrated that there is a huge potential for the country’s agriculture sector to turn cleaner through such simple and incentive-based measures.

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