Harvesting Hope: How Distributed Renewable Energy Can Reshape Agriculture for Communities and the Planet.png

Harvesting Hope: How Distributed Renewable Energy Can Reshape Agriculture for Communities and the Planet

More than 800,000 Kenyan dairy farmers have no electricity to refrigerate their milk, which means that about 60% of milk in Kenya spoils. Farmers don’t have access to electricity, and they can’t afford diesel generators, which are expensive to operate.

But the PV-SMART project is changing all that. Sponsored under the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Power Agriculture Energy Grand Challenge Program, the effort provides farmers with battery-free solar milk chillers. The units are financed by local savings and credit cooperatives. The PV-SMART program is realizing project paybacks of under 1 year, with no maintenance issues after two years.

Designed to work in locations with an average of at least four peak sun-hours per day, the program uses off-the-shelf solar technology, along with innovative cooling and energy storage. Now, the evening milk can be chilled on the farm and sent to a creamery the following morning.

Farmers Reap Premiums for Milk Cooled by Chillers

As a result of the project, farmers can receive a premium for providing high-quality refrigerated milk that would otherwise spoil.

In areas that lack electricity, projects that electrify farm production with distributed renewable energy (DRE) yield many benefits.

Globally, fossil fuels supply 70% to 80% of the energy used in agri-food systems, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Administration.

Agri-food chains account for 30% of global energy consumption, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. And 70% of the energy consumed is post-harvest, with 30% of that energy wasted as a result of food loss.

With DRE, Better Quality of Life

Using DRE in agriculture can prevent food waste and allow farmers to reap higher incomes, reach new markets and improve their quality of life. DRE also helps farmers reduce their dependence on volatile fossil fuel prices and diversify their products and services. This, in turn, creates more local jobs.

By eliminating the need for diesel or other fossil fuels, these projects reduce carbon emissions in regions like sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This helps combat the negative climate change cycle that SSA already experiences, including droughts, floods and storms, which diminish agricultural productivity.

Boosting Productivity, Reducing Diesel Use with DRE

In Ethiopia, the value chains that could benefit most from DRE technologies are irrigation, grain milling, injera and bread baking, milk cooling and coffee washing, according to a Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) analysis. For example, a national program in Ethiopia to expand productive uses of electricity with electric appliances in smallholder agriculture is hoped to create about $4 billion in annual value by 2025, RMI found.  The revenue increases are the product of replacing diesel fuel with electricity and increased productivity, RMI said.

“National electrification efforts have great potential to help rural smallholders power increased agricultural productivity, unlock local processing activities and create new businesses. This opportunity will be essential if universal electrification in Ethiopia is to generate the promised benefits especially in rural areas and support Ethiopia’s local and national economic growth,” said the RMI analysis.

This is especially important given workers’ reliance on the agricultural sector. In 2021, agriculture represented 40% of Ethiopia’s gross national product and 80% of its exports. Eight of every 10 workers in the country are connected to the sector.

Solar Water Pumping Aids Small-Scale Farmers

One activity that’s especially suited to DRE is water pumping. While the initial cost for solar water pumping is higher, over time the costs are lower.

A study of solar water pumping for small-scale farmers in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania found that the longer-term benefits of solar water pumping are higher than fossil-fueled pumping. That’s because the operational costs of solar pumping are significantly lower.

“Assuming that the farmers are able to obtain a solar water pumping system, results show that they will benefit and save a considerable amount of money over a long period of time,” said the study.

Specifically, it would cost about $331 to purchase a fossil-fueled water pump, and $4,223 for a solar-powered water pump. The operating cost for fossil-fueled pumps would be $804/year, but zero for solar powered pumps. The fossil fuel-based system has a lifespan of approximately two years, while the solar panels would last 25 years and the solar pump and controller would have a 10-year lifespan. Over 20 years the cost for a fossil-fueled system would be $22,221, compared to $7,975 for the solar-fueled system, said the study.

Improving Quality of Life with DRE

Another study–of 375 solar water pump users in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania– found that solar water pumps increased quality of life. Thirty percent of people in the study said the water pumps improved their income and standard of living. Twenty-two percent of those surveyed said the pumps saved money as they no longer spent money on fuel.

One of those users, Malinda Changwe, has a 3-acre maize and watermelon farm and also raises cattle and hens.  He purchased a solar water pump to replace a fuel water pump in hopes of saving money.  He uses it to irrigate the three acres and has seen his income increase.

Because the solar water pump doesn’t have fuel expenses, he irrigates his farm freely, which has improved productivity and income, he said.

“Now I get more products due to (the) irrigation that I am doing so I get money for selling it, also I get enough food for my household,” he said during the study.

“Solar Water Pump is My Life”

For people like Changwe who live in areas with no electricity access or who want to displace the use of fossil fuels, solar water pumps and other forms of DRE can be game changers, boosting income, improving daily life, eliminating fuel costs and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

“To me, my solar water pump is my life so I will never rent it to other people because he/she will not care for it the way I do and it will not last for as long a time as I want,” he said.

Lisa Cohn specializes in writing about energy and is co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and RealEnergyWriters.

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