By Syful Islam
DHAKA (AlertNet) - The government of Bangladesh is planning to install close to 19,000 solar-powered irrigation pumps by 2016, in a bid to expand the country's irrigated land area and boost food production, while limiting its reliance on fossil fuels.
The initiative is being promoted as an environmentally friendly approach to improving food security for the country’s fast-growing population of 160 million.
The new pumps will run on a combined 150 megawatts (MW) of power generated by solar panels, which is projected to save the government nearly $100 million in fuel-subsidy costs over 20 years.
Today Bangladeshi farmers rely on some 266,000 electrically powered water pumps - which consume around 1,300 MW - to irrigate 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of land.
An additional 1.3 million diesel-run pumps are operated during the peak growing season to irrigate 3.4 million hectares (8.4 million acres) of land, using 900,000 tonnes of fuel, according to Bangladesh’s power and energy ministry.
Once installed, the planned 18,750 solar-powered pumps – which will be managed by farmers' associations - will irrigate an additional 590,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of land for cultivating rice and vegetables, without requiring any grid electricity or diesel fuel.
Eventually the government hopes to switch over some of the land now irrigated with electric and diesel-powered pumps to solar pumps as well – if it can find financing, officials say.
The investment of $800 million needed for the project represents good value, they argue. Expanding irrigation with diesel-powered pumps, which are used mainly in rural areas not connected to the electricity grid, would require the government to subsidise farmers to the tune of $900 million over 20 years - $100 million more than the solar outlay.
Bangladeshi farmers who depend on diesel-run pumps are permitted to buy diesel fuel at government-subsidised prices if they show official identity cards. The subsidies are a drain on public coffers, particularly as the fuel is usually sold at a lower price than its import cost.
“Solar power is costly (to install), but you will find it cheaper if the calculation is done on a long-term basis. A solar panel carries 20 years of warranty, and after that it can generate power for 20 more years,” said Islam Sharif, executive director of the state-run Infrastructure Development Co Ltd (IDCOL), which is managing the project.
In addition to projected fuel savings, Bangladesh anticipates being able to generate and trade carbon credits worth around $18 million from the project through the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), with the income spread over 20 years, Sharif said.
IDCOL has already installed a dozen solar-powered irrigation pumps out of a total of 100 that will be placed across the country over the next 18 months under a pilot programme.
“After the pilot project is over, we will collect data on water levels across the country, hear the customers’ (farmers’) reaction, and gather other necessary data before starting installation of large numbers of irrigation pumps,” said Sharif.
IDCOL is working to find ways to lower the installation costs so the pumps can eventually be rolled out to the country’s 600 sub-districts, he added.
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
Bangladesh’s first solar-powered irrigation pump, with a capacity of 11 KW, was installed in 2009 in the northern district of Naogaon by Grameen Shakti, a micro-finance institution that is supporting the expansion of renewable energy in rural areas.
By comparison, the solar panels on the new pumps will each generate 5-7 KW of electricity. The smaller pumps, with the capacity to irrigate about 20 hectares per unit, can be managed more efficiently than larger models, according to Sharif. Each pump costs between $30,000 and $42,000.
Tapos Kumar Roy, additional secretary at the Ministry of Power, said the success of the pumps installed so far has convinced the government that introducing more could effectively provide clean energy and reduce the cost of diesel subsidies.
“The solar-run pumps will help reduce burning of fossil fuel…limiting the risk of global warming and climate change,” said Roy.
The government estimates that, once all the pumps are in place, their solar panels will save 675 MW hours of electricity per day, cut imports of diesel fuel by 47,000 tonnes per year, saving $45 million annually, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an annual 126,000 tonnes.
Roy said donor agencies, including the Asian Development Bank, as well as non-governmental organisations, micro-finance institutions, private companies and commercial banks, will play a significant role in funding the installation of the pumps, although specific commitments have yet to be finalised.
Abser Kamal, chief executive officer of Grameen Shakti, one of the project's backers, said it is a step towards making the country more self-sufficient in food, as extending irrigation to new areas will enable farmers to harvest more crops per year and boost yields.
“The solar-run pump we installed as a pilot (in 2009) covers irrigation of some 30 hectares of land and provides water at the same cost as that of diesel or electric pumps. Now the solar panels have become cheaper, so their installation cost will come down significantly and the capital (invested) will return comparatively quickly,” he added.
Syful Islam is a journalist with the Financial Express newspaper in Bangladesh. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.