Author: Sonal Gupta
Vol 4. Issue 1. January 2022
India’s agricultural sector is one of the key sources of livelihoods for the rural population of the country. With 60% of the farmed land relying on the traditional farming methods, the sustainability of agricultural is in peril due to extreme weather conditions. Hence, agrivoltaics i.e., a concept of combining farming with solar power generation to increase land productivity, comes to the rescue. Christophe Dupraz, while experimenting in a field in Montpellier, France, first coined agrivoltaics, wherein the application of agrivoltaic systems have led to escalation in the land productivity from 35-73%. Since then, the concept has been extensively tested on various lands and crops of different nature and characteristics. Some low shade crops and fodder production were able to respond well to the panel spacing and configurations, since it provided less exposure to heat and better soil moisture retention, even in hotter seasons. However, others were not compatible with the above-mentioned parameters.
Globally, it is estimated that agrivoltaic installed capacity has grown from about 5 megawatts (MW) in 2012 to approximately 2.9 gigawatts (GW) in 2021, being most prevalent in Germany, France, and Italy. In India, too, intensive research has gained momentum in this area. Despite it being at an incipient stage of development with only 16 installations so far, India holds a promising future for this technology for many reasons. Firstly, due to the ambitious target set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to achieve a goal of 50% renewable energy in India’s energy mix by 2030, setting up of agrivoltaics would lead to a phenomenal growth in the development of power systems infrastructure since it will contribute towards clean energy transition. Secondly, with most of India’s land covered with agriculture and around two-third of it exposed to solar energy, combining both would alleviate land competition and local manufacturing of solar panels, thereby leading to its sustainable and economic development.
Lastly, in India, rural areas experience numerous socio-economic issues related to low and unreliable farm incomes, lower farm yields, extreme applications of pesticides, lack of continuous supply of electricity and inefficient use of water resources. Hence, innovations of any sort would solve the abovementioned issues and thereby generate employment in the agricultural sector while reducing the number of suicides committed by Indian farmers. Despite these benefits, the agrivoltaics industry faces numerous constraints. At the time of installation, the cost of solar panels is huge, since it depends on the imported equipment, high cost of capital, lack of technical expertise, and intense opposition from mainland China and Taiwan. Moreover, the incentives offered by the Government of India are not attractive enough to gather the attention of end-users, leading to rejection of the concept. Inadequate training is provided to the farmers regarding the application of agrivoltaics in their respective farms. Further, according to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the solar systems degrade at a rapid pace of 0.5% per year leading to reduction in the efficiency of solar plants thereby reducing its life span to 20- 25 years. Additionally, at the time of decommissioning, solar systems are proposed to generate 2.95 billion tons of e-waste between 2020 to 2047 whereas India only recycles 4% of its total e-waste by the organized sector (as per the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)).
Hence, this call for government’s intervention to provide effective quality control in solar systems manufacturing with improved technical configurations and efficient waste management process. Furthermore, various measures needs to be taken to disseminate information regarding agrivoltaics by collaborating with leading research institutes, providing research grants and conducting workshops to keep the farmers abreast with the latest technologies. To ensure a seamless adoption process, appropriate categorization of land based on farming and non-farming commercial activities is required. Additionally, financial support should be provided to the farmers at an initial growth stage either through soft loans or green climate bonds. To reduce the distress among the farmers, direct support through policy changes is preferred rather than burdening them with loans. Adequate insurance coverage is vital to protect them from embezzlements or unexpected incidents.
Amendments in the existing PM Kusum scheme (which ties solar with irrigation) would bring flexibility in the usage of solar energy by expanding its array to other potential projects. Further, measures should be taken to safeguard the farmers, farmland and farm production by clear assignment of ownership to them and provision of flexibility in trading of excess electricity generated post self-consumption. The excess electricity may also be passed on to other commercial activities such as food processing or refrigeration. There are cases where land kept for agri-business is used only for power generation and sale thereon, since it is considered a better financial proposition. Hence, minimum established standards should be declared beforehand to prevent untimely cessation of farming activity.
To recapitulate, combining solar with farming poses various benefits to the power as well as the agribusiness of the country from increasing shade-tolerant crop yields to the reduction in greenhouse gases emissions. This ensures a continuous electricity supply to the rural areas with sustainable farming. Therefore, India should focus on the successful implementation of agrivoltaics-specific policies to experience not only a sunny but sustainable future.
(Dr. Sonal Gupta is an Assistant Professor at the School of Business, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (UPES), Dehradun.)