With sun power, Solar Impulse takes flight - and farmers water their fields

2015-03-12 - As Solar Impulse arrives for a stopover in India before continuing its round-the-world journey, farmers here have turned to ABB technology to water crops and expand harvests even when reliable grid electricity is tough to come by.

Solar Impulse 2 lands in Ahmedabad, India, completing the second leg of its round-the-world journey powered by nothing but energy from the sun. Copyright:Solar Impulse | Revillard | Rezo.ch
For thousands of farmers in southwestern India’s Karnataka state who grow sugar cane, wheat and sunflowers that form the basis of the rural economy, sporadic access to grid electricity has historically meant it was challenging to bring in crops - and put food on their tables.

Often, they were forced to rise in the middle of the night - the only time power was available - to water their fields. And while there are more than nine million diesel-driven pumps in India alone, their expensive fuel hits farmers' pocketbooks, may be hard to get and produces emissions.

Now, however, solar-powered pumps outfitted with efficient ABB drives are freeing them from grid dependence and letting them irrigate when they want, as long as they need.

Across India, thousands of these pumps have been supplied already, increasing farmers’ freedom and reducing their environmental footprint with clean, sustainable energy – the same energy that’s propelling Solar Impulse on its historic journey around the world without a drop of fossil fuel.

Shirshil Sadhashiv Dadkere, a sugar cane farmer in India's Karnataka state, says the ABB-equipped solar pumps he uses to irrigate his fields have freed him from reliance on sporadic electricity from the grid, helping boost his independence.
Pumps of plenty

“This solar power is like the mythical Hindu 'cow of plenty’ – we can produce water whenever we need it,” said Shirshil Sadhashiv Dadkere, a cane farmer whose land is about a four-hour drive from the nearest city, Belagavi. “During the summer we need more water for the crops, and now we can get that thanks to the solar pumps.”

Solar Impulse, which landed in Ahmedabad on Tuesday, and ABB forged an innovation and technology alliance last year dedicated to extending the boundaries of what is technologically possible - and focusing the world on the need to decouple economic growth from energy consumption.

And that’s just what the pumps - equipped with ABB's ACS355 drive to keep electricity flowing, despite widely varying sunlight - are doing, too, with farmers now able to efficiently harness non-polluting energy to make sure their crops get the water they need to thrive, even in the hot, tropical climate.

“We can be confident in having a solution,” Dadkere said. “We’re very happy with it.”

Irrigation systems form the lifeblood of rural communities across the globe - and ABB technology is improving them
India – and beyond

Half of the energy produced around the world goes to operate pumps, the critical piece of irrigation systems that are the lifeblood of rural economies.

But in many of these areas, in India and beyond, people struggle for reliable electrcity to power them. In fact, nearly a fifth of the world’s population, 1.6 billion people, are without access to electricity.

That’s why this solar pump, outfitted with ABB drives developed specifically for this application, offers such a powerful tool for farmers and others in remote areas seeking to boost their independence, increase yields and improve the quality of life for themselves and their families.

ABB's ACS355 drive for the solar pump that's already freeing thousands of farmers in India - and beyond - from reliance on sporadic grid electricity or fossil fuels
In India, the government has proposed deploying 100,000 of these solar pumps, including through programs supported by its Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and the country’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development.

The pumps are working so well, they’ve been installed elsewhere, too, in Sudan, Pakistan, South Africa, Bangladesh and Yemen.

Similar challenges

As different as farming may seem to be from solar aviation, ABB engineers who developed the pump drives faced the same challenges as the designers of Solar Impulse did when it came to developing systems to harvest as much energy from the sun as possible, regardless of the prevailing atmospheric conditions.

Laxmikantha Shenoy, ABB’s solar pump product manager in India, says engineers came up with a pump that is large enough to water crops effectively and so efficient it can harvest energy even at daybreak or during cloudy days, when solar radiation is weaker.
For Solar Impulse, where three ABB engineers have been working since 2014, this "maximum power point tracking" functionality ensures the plane’s batteries can be charged sufficiently during the day for the plane to remain aloft all night, something that will be essential during the non-stop odyssey between China and Hawaii later this year.

For ABB, it meant creating a drive so efficient it yields enough energy to start the pump’s motor and keep it running, starting at daybreak when the sun is low on the horizon or cloudy days when solar radiation is at its weakest. There's built-in flow measurement and detection, so the pump turns off in a dry run.

While the first solar pumps were too small, ABB created a drive for motors up to 25 horsepower, to power larger pumps equal to the task of irrigating expansive fields. And it’s all automatic, including the drive’s fault resets, leaving farmers more time to focus on other, more important tasks – like expanding operations and boosting their harvests.

“We came up with a solution where there is a bigger voltage range and where it can operate for a longer time,” said Laxmikantha Shenoy, ABB’s solar pump product manager in India. “It’s very simple. That leads to a lot of benefit for the farmers.”

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