Solar Electricity Buybacks May Reduce Groundwater Depletion in India

Ramanbhai Parmar, a wheat and banana farmer in India’s dry state of Gujarat, was the first to sell electricity back to the power grid from the solar panels that drive his water pump. Photo credit: CCAFS/Prashanth Vishwanathan

It’s hard to find solutions that confront water depletion, climate change and rural poverty all at once, but an innovative scheme being piloted in the Indian state of Gujarat does just that.

The idea is to enable farmers using solar-powered irrigation pumps to sell excess electricity back to the grid. That gives them an incentive to pump only the water they really need for their crops, slowing the depletion of groundwater. It also diversifies and boosts their incomes. And by pumping with solar energy rather than diesel, they reduce climate-altering carbon emissions.

Last week, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the mastermind of the new buy-back scheme in Gujarat, announced that Ramanbhai Parmar, a grower of bananas and wheat, would receive the first payment for his “solar crop.”

Innovative solutions to groundwater depletion are sorely needed in many parts of the world, but especially in India. More than 15 percent of India’s food is produced by mining groundwater.

In addition to Gujarat, groundwater levels are falling extensively in the breadbasket states of Punjab and Haryana in the northwest, as well as in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.

Much of the depletion has been driven by the availability of inexpensive motorized pumps, along with heavy subsidies for electricity and fuel.

In recent years many Indian farmers have switched from diesel to solar-powered pumps. While the shift to clean, renewable energy is a positive development, farmers still have an incentive to pump more water than they need because the near-flat rates for electricity make the cost of pumping additional water practically zero.

“’Solar crops’ are a very exciting example of a triple-win,” said IWMI senior fellow Tushaar Shah in a press release. “Farmers, the state, and precious water reserves all benefit from a single intervention.”

IWMI estimates that around 11 million farmers connected to the electricity grid could, in theory, benefit from such electricity buy-back schemes.

As part of its pilot study in Gujarat, IWMI is monitoring on-farm electricity generation, income, water efficiency and crop production.

While a small pilot scheme at the moment, this initiative is one worth watching.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books, including Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last?, and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.
  • Alok

    Truely great initiative. Reducing the ground water pollution is the need of time in India. Innovative solutions like Solar Crop will help in this cause.
    Thanks for sharing this great article.

  • Sam

    Dear Sandra,
    Sorry to say that your article is seriously flawed. IMHO, ground water depletion is not due to cheap pumps, or subsidised electricity. Even if the pumps are expensive and the subsidies are low, most states would use ground water because that is their only source of water. This may even include river basins because many rivers are dry at certain periods of the year. Please note that I am not favouring ground water use or subsidies. Electricity buybacks will not have any effect on depletion. Approaches like drip irrigation will.

    • Thank you for your comment, but I beg to differ. While groundwater depletion may certainly occur without the subsidies, the scale and degree of it certainly is influenced by the large subsidies, especially for electricity. When the marginal cost of pumping is effectively zero, there’s going to be a lot more pumping. See the research of Tushaar Shah at IWMI (and his earlier book, Taming the Anarchy) for more.



  • solarpumpindia


    The water thus drawn from ponds, rivers, bore wells or other sources by a solar water pump is pumped to supply water as required. This is sufficient to irrigate about 2 acres of land with regular crops. Visit here for more details.

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