Are solar pumps the start of an ever-green revolution or the end of our groundwater reserves?

Solar energy might be free but the equipment needed to tap into it is expensive. Can farmers benefit without falling into the subsidy trap?

Indian farmers depend on groundwater for irrigation but often, there is a shortage of electricity that is required to pump out this water. While diesel pumps are an option, they are costly to run. A better alternative is to tap into freely available solar power. However, this technology is quite expensive at present and effective subsidies and incentives drive its usage. Another catch to this ‘free’ power situation is the perception that if groundwater were available more freely, then farmers might end up exploiting it. These issues were discussed during a session of the IWMI Tata meet in November 2012 with many experts in the field presenting their views.

Avinash Kishore, postdoctoral fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute,  explored the reasons behind nearly a century of stagnation in Bihar including agricultural productivity, cropping patterns and other parameters. He concluded that public infrastructure, mainly the lack of electricity, was the primary cause of this.
Rakesh Tiwary of NABARD talked about the Nalanda solar initiative, a tie-up between the Minor Water Resources department along with Claro, a startup that markets pumps that run on solar energy. They converted 34 existing NABARD pumps to solar energy pumps. The project faced many challenges including the key bit that was to integrate and sustain it in a community-based irrigation system.
Soumitra Mishra, co-founder of Claro Energy,  made a presentation on Claro's experience in Bihar and why they decided to tap into the solar energy market in India.
P. Gopalan, Managing Director of SunEdison, explained solar photovoltaic technology, which is the conversion of solar energy to electrical. He also gave a brief background of SunEdison and then explained the application of this technology to the agriculture sector.
Hemant Lamba, co-founder of AuroRE (Auroville Renewable Energy),  discussed  micro-solar pumps in addition to larger pumps. His talk focussed on the lack of maintenance and security of the pumps that are installed for free. Lamba stated that beneficiaries need to have some autonomy over the products they are offered, which could be done by a one-time transfer or an EMI subsidy.
Nidhi Tewari, Ashoka Fellow of 2008, recounted her experience with installing solar pumps in Rajasthan. She talked about the pitfalls of over-extraction of groundwater, and the varied uses that farmers were putting this technology to.