Last year, Mohammad Al Mamun, a businessman from Chapainawabganj, started a farming project in Nachole upazila of the same district. The five-bigha project had a three-bigha mango orchard, and a two-bigha fish farm.
As he initiated the project in the monsoon, he did not face any trouble watering the plants and the pond. In the meantime, he applied to the local power distribution company, BREB (Bangladesh Rural Electrification Board), for grid connectivity. To his utter dismay, the officials informed Mamun that the company was not giving new connections.
Mamun was thunderstruck. He pleaded for the connection as his investment would soon ruin due to the dearth of water at the end of the rainy season. But to no avail.
Unable to get grid connection, Mamun started thinking about alternative sources of power. After some research, he determined that he could buy a diesel-based system for Tk1 lakh 40 thousand, or he could go for a solar irrigation system for Tk3 lakh including the cost of boring (it means digging a tube well. It is the first step of setting up an irrigation pump).
He went for the latter, although the initial cost was almost two-fold.
"Running the diesel engine for 10 hours every day would cost me around Tk700 daily. So I chose a solar system because it doesn't need any fossil fuel," Mamun told The Business Standard. The cost would reach Tk1,090 today, after the latest fuel price adjustment. The two-bigha pond requires frequent water refill as it dries up fast. The orchard also needs regular watering.
Mamun mentioned some other solar irrigation projects in neighbouring upazilas. He said privately-owned solar pumps were doing great as there is a drought-like situation this year. He also added that a lot of government agencies-run solar pumps were out of order due to lack of maintenance.
Mamun bought the solar system from Rural Sun Power, a Dhaka-based seller who has been installing solar irrigation systems since 2014. The firm has installed 342 pumps across the country so far. Its proprietor, Nazmul Hasan, says the journey was not very smooth.
"People hardly had any idea about solar pumps back in the day. The prices of such products were also very high," Nazmul said.
On average, their systems consist of 3-7 KWp solar panels. But now they are getting bigger.
"We're currently working on a 15 HP solar pump project. There was a time when finding an entrepreneur willing to spend Tk13.50 lakh on solar irrigation systems was hard. But now people are taking a real interest in solar pumps," Nazmul told The Business Standard.
Asked if the latest diesel price hike and the return of regular load-shedding increased the demand for solar irrigations systems, Nazmul said the price hike of diesel was not expected to change the market overnight because most farmers cannot afford the initial investment needed for installing a solar irrigation system. But he said more people are calling his office and enquiring about solar irrigation systems nowadays.
Funding is the main problem, Nazmul said. Last year, Rural Sun Power sold solar pumps with 50% credit, and sales increased by a lot. However, as the buyers failed to pay instalments regularly, the offer was discontinued.
A cost comparison shows solar irrigation systems, with falling prices, have become competitive with grid electricity.
Although depending on the customer category and slab, a grid power consumer has to pay up to Tk12 (or more, in special cases) for each unit of power, agricultural pump users pay a flat rate of Tk4.16 per unit of electricity.
Another cost analysis of Al Mamun's system shows that the solar panels, in association with the VFD (Variable-frequency drive) controller which converts DC (direct current) electricity to three-phase AC (alternating current) for the motor, can produce every unit (KWh) of electricity at around Tk4. This is a conservative calculation where the lifetime of the project is assumed to be 10 years while the sellers give a warranty of 25 years for solar panels.
This calculation includes the structure built to hoist and hold the panels but excludes the cost of the pump, cables, water pipes and boring which is common for grid connected systems. Of course, unlike Al Mamun's case, the applications where solar pumps sit idle more than half of the time, the unit cost will multiply.
However, grid integration of these solar systems could have brought the owners some extra earnings when the pumps were not in use, and the cost would be covered even faster. Also notable here is the fact that grid electricity is highly subsidised by the government, which brings the price of grid electricity down.
Thus, existing conditions make solar pumps expensive in a way. But for farmers who cannot avail a grid connection, solar pumps are the best alternative. Farmers say new connections are hard to get nowadays. And of course, frequent load-shedding has become another headache.
Yet, the large initial investment required for such a system remains the main impediment for the fast growth of solar irrigation systems.
For the last 10 years, Infrastructure Development Company Limited (Idcol), the government's non-bank financial institution tasked with financing and overseeing medium to large-scale renewable energy projects development in Bangladesh, has been financing the installation of larger solar irrigation systems.
Apart from 35% loan, Idcol provides 50% grant for setting up such systems.
Solargao Ltd, a climate startup founded in 2012 by freedom fighter Sufi Iqbal Ahmed, his son Taufiq Sufi and a group of climate enthusiasts, implemented over 750 solar irrigation projects in 570 individual sites in North Bengal that provides year-round irrigation and agricultural services to over 23,000 farmers.
The company works both as an EPC contractor (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) for reputable companies such as Gazi Renewable Energy Ltd, Blue Marine Energy Ltd, etc and as an Idcol sponsor for its own solar irrigation, mini-grid and nano-grid projects.
Its CEO and founder, Taufiq Sufi, spoke highly of the potential of solar irrigation systems.
"The current energy crisis is not unexpected when you think of all the geo-political issues of the world; this is why Bangladesh must pursue a national solar irrigation policy to keep our agricultural sector free from the effects of worldwide diesel and other fossil fuel prices and availability. Our country uses between 15 and 20% of the national grid for irrigation purposes, which is why it's prudent that we put enough solar systems on the ground to offset this loss from the national grid that's impacting other industries like garments. Installing solar pumps is easy and its benefits are lifelong," Taufiq told The Business Standard.
Taufiq says more subsidies would facilitate the growth of solar irrigation systems.
"Most Indian states offer between 80 and 90% subsidy for solar irrigation systems; this created a huge grassroots revolution in India where farmers were able to install 3 lakh plus solar pumps in the last 10 years and these pumps are mostly grid connected resulting in many GW of electricity from solar irrigation alone," he noted.
Bangladesh's solar irrigation systems are not grid integrated. As a result, 50-60% of installed solar capacity is wasted.
There is a net metering policy in the country that allows renewable projects to sell electricity to the power distribution companies, but the current policy requires the system's capacity to be above 10 KWp, a capacity high above privately funded systems.
In an earlier report published in TBS, officials said the government was not interested in integrating small solar systems with the grid to avoid instability issues.
But Idcol funded projects are often above the 10 KWp mark. Yet, those are not grid connected.
In 2018, Idcol set a target of installing 50,000 solar pumps by 2025. Apart from replacing diesel-run pumps, this number of systems could also have added up to 2.5 GWp of electricity to the national grid if integrated.
Later, the company readjusted the target to install 10,000 pumps, that too by 2027, and has managed to install only 1,515 pumps so far.
To talk about the revision of the target, and the grid integration of the solar irrigation systems, we reached out to Idcol, but the authority declined to respond to our queries despite repeated requests.