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Indian Farmer Paves Way for New, Climate-smart Cash Crop: Sunshine

Ramanbhai Parmar has become the first farmer to sell energy back to the power grid from the solar panels that drive his water pump in Anand district, Gujrat, India, June 8, 2015. (International Water Management Institute photo, Prashanth Vishwanathan)

A pioneering project in one of India's sunniest states has led to one farmer harvesting what could become the country's most climate-smart cash crop yet: sunshine.

A pilot project by Sri Lanka-based nonprofit International Water Management Institute (IWMI) offered farmers the opportunity to sell excess energy generated by solar panels that drive their water pumps, and one farmer did just that.

Instead of using the excess energy to pump more groundwater to irrigate wheat and banana crops, Ramanbhai Parmar from Gujarat state sold the extra energy he generated over four months back to the power grid.

He received 7,500 Indian rupees ($120) for 1,500 kilowatt hours of electricity that, if used to run his water pump, would have extracted an extra 8 million liters of groundwater.

" 'Solar crops' are a very exciting example of a triple win," Tushaar Shah, IWMI senior fellow, said in a statement. "Farmers, the state, and precious water reserves all benefit from a single intervention."

When solar-powered water pumps were introduced in Gujarat, farmers took advantage of what they saw as free energy to extract water, but they took more than they needed and groundwater reserves were depleted.

"We know that India's farmers are extremely responsive to incentives that improve productivity and incomes," said Shah. "By offering them the chance to sell the electricity generated by their solar-powered water pumps, we could make agriculture in India cleaner and greener."

Gujarat gets up to 3,000 hours of sunlight per year, but at the same time it suffers from extended dry spells. Giving farmers an opportunity to sell excess energy could encourage them to pump only the water they need, said IWMI.

IWMI estimates that around 11 million farmers across India are currently connected to the electricity grid could install solar-powered water pumps and sell the extra energy produced.

According to the 2011 census, about 33 percent of India's households lacked access to electricity. Scaling up the initiative could help relieve pressure on the state's overwhelmed electricity board, said IWMI.

($1 = 63.5207 Indian rupees)