The agricultural revolution is considered by many to be the starting point of civilization. It’s when humanity stopped wandering and surviving off hunting and gathering and began to innovate. Society was formed around permanent dwellings, and the truly surprising thing is that all of this arguably started out in Ancient Egypt, a vast, complex and highly advanced society that somehow managed to thrive in a desert. How did Ancient Egypt manage this feat? Through one of the most significant technological advances in human history: irrigation.
Irrigation allowed the Ancient Egyptians to draw water from the Nile River and fertilize their soil. This made it possible for their society to become quite wealthy for the time period. While this is certainly an impressive feat considering it happened thousands of years ago, times have changed and irrigation has became a very old way of doing things. The Ancient Egyptians had access to the Nile River which was no small privilege. People that live in water scarce areas can’t use this technology, so it’s fair to say that it is something based quite firmly in the old way of doing things.
That said, irrigation is still a highly efficient way to maximize agricultural output. As humanity grows in number it has become important to star growing crops in water scarce areas as well. But how can a water scarce area use a farming method that is only possible with a source of fresh water? Well, you must combine this once advanced technology with currently advanced technology, namely solar power!
Solar powered irrigation systems are a revolution in the world of farming, and the surprising thing is that they have been around in one form or another since the ‘70s! The way this system works is that pumps running on solar power will pull water from a deep underground source. However, this isn’t just a glorified groundwater pump. Quite on the contrary, modern solar irrigation systems utilize a lot of other technology to make the job of the average farmer much easier.
Copper wires in the ground connected to the pump act as moisture sensors. This is a smart pump that would detect how much moisture is in the ground. They send this information to a microcontroller. The pump will only draw enough water to bring moisture to acceptable levels. This level will change based on whatever crop you are growing. Farmers would no longer have to monitor moisture levels themselves because the pump would do this for them.
An added benefit is that flooding will become impossible. This has two further benefits. Firstly, crops will only receive as much water as they need and won’t be accidentally damaged by flooding. Secondly, a lot of water is wasted because of flooding and the moisture sensors can prevent this from happening. This kind of system can automate irrigation to a large extent and make it feasible in areas that don’t have over ground freshwater sources.
How Does All of This Work?
If you are not a very technical person then a lot of what was stated above might have seemed confusing to you. Basically, the single greatest source of energy that the Earth has is the sun. The sun sends energy in the form of light and heat, and while this energy has always been coming to Earth humanity was simply too primitive to use it. As the modern world emerged and technology became increasingly advanced, the concept of truly harnessing the sun’s energy was conceived. The most common way in which this energy is harnessed and turned into clean electricity is through the use of solar panels.
A solar panel is essentially a collection of cells. These cells are referred to as “photovoltaic cells”, and are sometimes called “solar cells” as well. The material used to construct these cells is silicon. Basically, each cell consists of a film of silicon which conducts either a positive or a negative charge. This film of silicon is what converts solar power into electricity. Once the cells are made, they are covered with a glass panel. This panel is generally meant to protect the cells from the elements and increase durability.
There are a few caveats to solar power. For example, it only really generates electricity during the day since it requires solar energy. In order to use this power at night, a battery needs to be added. This battery will collect excess energy produced and store it for later use. The solar panels also need to face the sun directly otherwise their efficiency will decrease.
Solar energy can be used to power lots of different items necessary for the irrigation process. It’s not just restricted to the pumps. Ventilation systems can be powered through this energy source. Lighting for the crops can also be facilitated without extra electricity costs. Basically solar power is a one stop solution for all irrigation based power needs.
How It’s Used in Agriculture
The general opinion of people regarding solar power is a little simplistic. People usually think of it being used in residential or commercial settings. For example, either powering a home or powering a factory. Office buildings can also be powered through this energy source. However, an often underrepresented use for solar power is in the agricultural sector. This is perhaps one of the most important sectors out there. People working in this sector are responsible for providing food. If problems in this sector occur, it’s fair to say that a large section of society could crumble.
Solar power has been used in agriculture for thousands of years. After all, plants can grow without sunlight! Modern solar panels take this to a whole new level, though. They can boost productivity by large margins. Areas that don’t have much water often lack behind in agriculture. Using solar powered irrigation, these areas can get on par with some of the biggest agricultural producers in the world.
A solar powered irrigation set up can draw water from above ground water sources such as lakes and rivers. It can also draw water from the ground. The latter of these two is more important for people living in dry hot areas. However, it should be noted that it requires a lot more power to draw water from underground. Using over ground sources requires far less electricity. Places with little water usually get a lot of sunlight, though. Hence, this is a very elegant way for such areas to solve their agriculture problem.
Even farmers that have access to over ground water sources can benefit from using such a system. It can primarily reduce workloads. This can increase output. The more output a farm has, the better fed the world can be. This is also great for the economy. Agricultural output leads to more spending and more earning. Both of these can help the economy grow. Ensuring food security is essential to the stability of a country. Hence, using solar power in agriculture can potentially reduce violent conflicts. If there is enough food to go around, no one will have to fight to get a fair share.
Solar power is now being used by countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. The potential benefits are enormous when compared to the cost. What’s more is that financial institutions are getting in on the action. They are providing assistance in the form of loans. Subsidies can also be acquired. This is a great example of cooperation between the public and private sector. The loans are more than worth it when the vastly increased output is considered. A less strenuous workload is also a factor that makes the investment worthwhile.
The Components of a Solar Irrigation System
A solar powered irrigation system, or SPIS for short, has various components. Each component plays a crucial role in the system working. The first component is obviously the solar panels. Wires run from the back of the solar panels and provide power to the motor pump.
The second component is the pump itself. There are actually two ways in which a pump can be installed. If there is easy access to an above ground water source, a surface pump can be used. This type of pump is usually right in front of the water source. It sucks up water and sends it to the crops through a pipe. This is a modern version of the irrigation canals that were once used. If the only source of water is below the ground, a submersible pump would be required. This pump is usually placed anywhere from ten to a hundred meters underground. Sometimes the number goes as high as 120 meters. They are placed in a borehole or well from which they draw water. This second type of pump usually uses a float switch for automatic water dispersal.
A third component can also be added. This component is a reservoir. It is optional since not everyone needs to collect excess water. Water scarce areas can’t afford to waste a drop, so they use reservoirs. This facilitates drip irrigation which uses far less water than a sprinkler system which is the traditional method.
How Much Investment is Required?
The initial cost of the setup depends on what kind of system you want. There are a lot of options when it comes to solar panels. Some brands offer lower prices than others. The wattage of each solar panel affects the price too, as does the total number of panels.
Another factor that impacts price is the type of water source. An above ground water source is cheaper than groundwater. The deeper the water source is, the more expensive the setup will be. A surface pump costs less than a submersible pump, so having a freshwater source on your land can reduce initial costs. Different soil can also mean different prices, as some soil requires more water than others. Certain soil types also often require more care which can further raise prices.
All this talk of rising prices might make you think such a system would be expensive. The truth is that prices have been going down steadily. The total price of a system like this is expected to drop quite a bit in the next five years.
If you want hard numbers, a full system in Kenya can be a good example. This was a small setup but it had a submersible pump and 300W solar panels. The total cost including installation was about $2,400.
Solar Panel Buying Guide
The ideal solar panel should be able to withstand extreme temperatures. Blunt force should also be protected against to a certain extent. A truly durable panel would have the 61215 certification from the IEC.
Ensuring quality is essential here. ISO Series 9000 certification is a guarantee that the product is solid. This is an international certification meant to maintain industry standards across numerous countries. It is a highly reliable way to gauge the quality of the product.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming more expensive panels are better. If you’re paying around $3 per watt, this is a reasonable price. Anything higher needs to be justified in the specs. Installation costs also vary, so do your research so you can make sure it’s being done fairly.
Type of Warranty
Even if you buy the cheapest solar irrigation system it will still cost a lot. Hence, warranties are crucial. There are two types of warranties. One is a performance warranty. This guarantees that the panels will generate electricity reasonably efficiently for twenty five years. An equipment warranty can cover factory faults in the equipment itself. These warranties generally last about ten years, although some manufacturers offer up to twenty five year warranties.
The Best SPIS Brands
It should come as no surprise that the best manufacturer of solar powered irrigation systems is a Chinese company. This company is JinkoSolar and it has franchises in every region. Most of the other top manufacturers are Chinese too. These include JA Solar, Trina Solar and Longi Solar. The only top SPIS manufacturer that isn’t based in China is Canadian Solar, but interestingly enough this company was founded by a Chinese immigrant! It seems like the Chinese have an unshakeable hold over the solar panel market right now.
The Benefits of SPIS
Virtually Free Energy
The sun is a limitless source of energy. Once you have installed your solar system, it will generate more than enough energy at pretty much no cost. Compare this to regularly buying fossil fuels and you’d notice big savings.
We are having a very negative impact on our planet. Solar power does not have nearly as severe an impact.
This is a solution that lasts decades. Most systems are guaranteed to work at least twenty five years. After this you will have saved so much money that upgrading your system would still be affordable.
Ask any farmer what their day is like and you will be amazed by how hard they work. Providing such systems to farmers can help make their work day more humane. This can facilitate a better work/life balance for farmers.
Can Generate Revenue
An adequate solar panel array won’t just generate enough power for your SPIS. It will most likely generate excess energy too. This energy can then be sold to power companies. This can be a useful source of revenue for farmers.
Improves Crop Yields
Areas that previously relied on rainfall would be able to grow exponentially more crops with this kind of setup. The efficiency of the system also means that overflooding would decrease. This means crops will get damaged less. This also improves overall yield.
Adds Value to Real Estate
Anyone buying farmland would jump at the chance to get a SPIS in the bargain. Having a solar powered irrigation system can greatly increase property value. The prior installation means that profit can be charged on top of the initial expense and it would still be a good deal.
The Negatives of SPIS
Requires Sizeable Initial Investment
While the energy you get after installation is free, the installation itself is not. Most people in rural areas with no water don’t have money, and can’t afford financing either.
Easy to Steal
Poor, water scarce areas are usually full of people trying to make ends meet. These people would often steal to survive, and a solar panel is quite easy to steal. Most poor countries don’t have insurance options for solar panels. Securing them would be an extra cost the farmer would have to bear.
Lack of Awareness
People who live in areas where SPIS would be most useful usually aren’t aware that it is an option. Reaching them can be difficult due to their often remote villages.
Farmers that have been using traditional methods won’t know how to use an SPIS. They would need to be trained. A certain level of technical proficiency is required to use an SPIS effectively.
Due to most manufacturing happening in already developed countries, developing countries often don’t have access to this technology. This creates a problem because those that need it more are not being offered the chance to buy it.
Water is the single most important factor in agriculture. Both soil and sunlight have artificial solutions that work just as well if not better, but water continues to be essential. The propagation of SPIS in rural communities can bring them significant wealth and can reduce economic strife. While there are certainly issues that need to be addressed, this is something that can be done with time. Governments of developing countries are being offered these systems via loans and payment plans. This means that they can boost production and pay back loans with the extra funds their improved economies would give them. It’s only a matter of time before this undoubtedly superior irrigation method ends up becoming the standard.