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Greenpeace’s challenge: Develop a green pump for India

According to reports, with a mission to green India’s agriculture further, Ingo Boltz, Global Innovation Manager of Greenpeace, is spearheading a new innovation to replace diesel pumps with a viable alternative based on renewable energy. Boltz spoke to Business Line about the challenges facing Indian agriculture and the renewable industry. Edited excerpts:

What are the problems with India’s irrigation system?

About 10 million diesel pumps are being used throughout India to irrigate fields. With rising diesel prices, a lot of farmers can’t afford diesel pumps anymore. They don’t have grid power, so they can’t use electric pumps. So, they are in a bind.

At the same time, diesel pumps are environment-unfriendly. There is a lot of CO{-2} emission that accelerates climate change and comes back to bite the same farmers… by floods and super-droughts.

So, what we are trying to do is give them an alternative, which makes more sense to them economically and is more environment-friendly. Right now there is no pump in the market that works for them.

There are some solar pumps (7,000 only) but these are very expensive. The cheapest solar pump starts at about Rs 3 lakh. Also, solar pumps stand fixed, and because the panels are valuable, they get stolen.

Farmers who don’t have pumps usually rely on water merchants (pump owners). So, they pay a fixed price per hour, per day and sometimes as a percentage of the earnings.

What is Greenpeace looking at now?

What we need is a solar or renewable energy pump that is cheap (maximum Rs 1 lakh), portable and provides enough irrigation performance to water at least one hectare.

We could have hired five engineers to work on it and come back with some design, but we want to mobilise people. So, we decided on an open innovation challenge. People from Europe, North America, South America and, of course, India and South Asia will participate.

We are not insisting on solar — it can be hydro, wind, bio-mass, etc. — but it has to work in rural Bihar (where Greenpeace has a renewable campaign going).

At the end of 10 weeks, there will be a voting on the best solutions. We have put together an expert panel. This includes an ex-CEO of Tata BP Solar, some irrigation experts, and people who know about rural marketing and finance. The jury will select the top three. Then, participants will vote the top 10.

If and when you get an effective solution, how will you scale this up?

Once we have the best designs, the next step is a prototyping workshop in India where the winners come together and build their designs, which we then take to in-field beta testing. We’ll work with farmers in Bihar… Once we have a prototype that works, we will do an acceleration programme. The idea is to get 100 people who want to be entrepreneurs from different regions in Bihar. We will invite them for training so they become evangelists for the pumps. We will pay them with pumps (so they get a pump free). We will also give them a chance to buy up to four additional pumps at 50 per cent discount. So, they have a stock to start working with and they take them back to their villages, become resellers and generate some capital and keep investing in the pumps. Or, they can start working as water merchants.

What about mass production? Will you consider tying up with companies?

It depends a bit on who we get as participants. Since the competition is already on, we already have some designs. Some are proposed by commercial companies and others by people who don’t have any manufacturing capacity. If we get someone who already has manufacturing capacity, fantastic. If not, we’ll match them up with somebody who does. So, this is also a business opportunity for companies that innovate. But we are aiming to produce locally to avoid imports.

There is a perception that Greenpeace is an “anti” group. You aren’t known to work closely with industries…

There is a small group within Greenpeace that runs solutions campaigns. People say Greenpeace is always against, against, against, “we don’t want this”, “we don’t want that”. But we also say “instead, use that”, and if that “use that” doesn’t exist, sometimes we have created it.

What do you feel about the renewable energy policies in India?

There are a lot of policies, but these don’t encourage subsidising renewable energy. Not only are some (policies) missing, but some are damaging. In the context of the pumps, there are not only 10 million diesel pumps but there are also 10 million electric pumps.

Right now it is almost impossible to compete with these because electricity is so cheap for farmers, who have no incentive to change. But 60 per cent of the grid electricity is coal-based, which also drives climate change. If all these were using solar pumps, it would reduce the pressure on the grid.

Also, in areas with high-power pumps, everyone pumps a lot of water in a short time, the groundwater level drops, and all that water sits in the fields and evaporates. So, you damage the groundwater and it doesn’t go to the plants.

Solar pumps are slower, get the water to the plants and combine it with the micro-irrigation system. There is less soil erosion, and groundwater is protected.

What you (India) really should be doing is reducing subsidy for grid powered pumps and putting it into solar pumps.

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