India is projected to have the largest population of any country by the end of the decade (UN 2019), making it a key player in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. India's federal government recently announced a new solar initiative (KUSUM Policy) that helps combat climate change and expand access to electricity. Since agriculture employs over 40% of the population and accounts for 20% of electricity use, the policy emphasizes solarization of the agricultural sector policy, primarily through the expansion of 3.5 million new solar irrigation pumps (SIPs). SIPs are also a key development and environmental justice goal, which allows 70% of farmers without adequate irrigation to boost agricultural productivity (FAO 2021).
While adding new pumps or replacing pumps powered by fossil fuels will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it may exacerbate groundwater depletion. This is a serious concern since almost 70% of agriculture in India is irrigated with groundwater and many regions face severe groundwater scarcity. Access to reliable irrigation may also change the food system by allowing farmers to shift towards market-oriented and more nutritious crops. The costs and benefits of SIPs highlight a critical food, energy, water (FEW) nexus challenge facing India as well as many countries that are considering a large-scale investment in SIPs.
This effort will inform future research on spatially optimal SIP installation and complementary agricultural water policies such as groundwater recharge. This research will lay the groundwork to inform policy critical to mitigating carbon, sustaining groundwater resources, and lifting subsistence farmers out of poverty. Findings on SIPs in India provide insights for other developing countries pursuing leapfrog technologies such as SIPs or other off-grid or micro-grid renewables. Our partnerships with local organizations will disseminate research findings to relevant stakeholders who will influence the direction of SIP policy in India.