Off-grid Solar PV Applications for Agriculture in Southern Africa

solar pump

Solar PV is a viable means to use more sustainable energy and reduce costs in many different settings. Besides residential, industrial, and commercial users, the agricultural industry also stands to benefit. There are a number of different applications for solar PV in Southern Africa, and several of them are discussed in this article.

The Role of Agriculture in Southern African

The agricultural sector is vital for ensuring local food security. It also yields a wide variety of export crops, which contribute to international trade. Agriculture can be conducted on the commercial, small-scale, or subsistence level and makes a significant contribution to job creation. In the South African economy, the agricultural, forestry, and fishery sectors contributed 2.4% of the nation’s GDP in 2017. This corresponded to a total volume of production of 62.9 million tonnes.

Agriculture is a vital component of the economies of the other developing nations of Southern Africa as well. In Zimbabwe, agriculture accounts for 9-15% of the nation’s GDP, around 8% in Zambia, and about 10% in Swaziland, for example. With fast-growing populations, there is still a lot that must be done in this sector to ensure food security, job creation, and economic growth. The map that follows shows the agro-ecologies and farming systems in SADC as of 2008.

 

africa farming

Source: SADC Multi-country Agricultural Productivity Programme (SADC MAPP)

Many of the nations in this part of the world have vast areas of arable land, and with the right skills and input resources, they have potential to continue producing high yields. The climatic conditions are favourable for cultivating many different crop varieties. Sustainable farming practices must be looked at to protect the environment. For the success of this industry, farmers must look at new technologies and methods for improving their operations. Farming is a business, so farmers must ensure that they keep their costs low and their operations running. Solar PV can be used to achieve both objectives.

The Benefits of Solar PV in the Agricultural Setting

Southern Africa is well-positioned to benefit from the solar energy boom because of high levels of solar irradiation. The SADC region saw a 38.7% growth in its capacity for renewable energy in 2018. This is in line with the average global growth rate in the solar power industry of 54% a year over the last decade.

The benefits of using solar PV are numerous. Farms and agri-processing facilities require energy for operating pumps, lighting, machinery and other equipment. When solar PV is used to provide some or all of those energy requirements, the cost savings can be very significant over time, leading to higher profitability and lower operational expenses once the system pays itself off and energy is sourced free from the sun. After the solar PV installation, the electricity costs per unit are lower than the rising costs from the grid and the cost of using petrol or diesel to run generators.

Additionally, solar energy is sustainable, and the equipment is low maintenance with minimal moving parts compared to diesel generators. Farmers can become highly self-sufficient in their farming and processing operations. They no longer have to have their activities disrupted by load shedding and other faults involving the utility provider but can make use of solar power throughout the year. In many cases, agricultural lands may be remote and yet to have the grid infrastructure installed on site. These locations can benefit from going ahead with their own individual or shared community solar PV installations.

Agricultural Applications for Solar PV

One of the most important considerations in any farming operation is the supply of water. Whether it’s maize production, cattle rearing, or flower cultivation, having enough water is non-negotiable. Many farming operations in Southern Africa are reliant on the seasonal rains for water. During drought seasons when rainfall is reduced, this can result in reduced yields and food insecurity. For commercial farmers, having all-year-round irrigation capabilities ensures commercial viability even in the dry season.  It is also advantageous to have off-grid solar powered pumps when you are in remote areas which is often the case with farmlands who can be far from the utlity grid. Waiting to be electrified by a utility company can be very expensive and difficult. The picture below shows a simple example setup for a surface-mounted solar water pump.

solar pump

Source:  Farm&Livestock Directory

To run their on-site water systems, farmers require a nearby water source such as a dam or borehole. Energy is required to operate both subsurface borehole and surface pumps. Solar PV installations can be used to power these pumps. In this way, farmers can reduce their energy costs and have a reliable system in place. Regardless of the water source, solar irrigation can be used. It is worth the investment and is proving to be a game-changer in the farming industry. In recent years, solar irrigation has been gaining ground in the nation of Rwanda, resulting in farm yields doubling in some cases.

Source:  Farm&Livestock Directory

Agri-processing is an important and growing sector in Southern African agricultural operations. By increasing the level of local value-addition done to farm produce, more of the profits can be generated locally. These processing facilities may use different types of equipment and machinery, depending on the type of processing being done and the scale. Examples include feed processors, milk pasteurisation equipment, cutters, dryers, milling, and mixers. All these require energy, which can be supplied by solar PV.

There are many different operations that require energy at a farm. Solar PV can be used for all or part of these. Where hot water is required, such as in cleaning cattle pens, solar PV water heaters can be used. Where carefully controlled air, humidity, and temperature conditions are required, such as in a greenhouse, solar PV can be used to power this. Other uses of electricity from solar PV include providing lighting for poultry and farmhouses, powering electric fences, and refrigeration.

As technologies for storing solar power for later use become cheaper and more readily available, this is only going to improve the value of using solar PV in agriculture. The examples looked at show how a simple solar PV installation could have a great impact on a small or large farm’s profitability and resilience in unstable power and rainfall situations. Southern Africa has a tremendous resource at its disposal, and it’s time to maximize its potential.

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Feel free to contact us to see how we can help you with your next off-grid solar PV project planning and execution.

+27605218388 | info@zpenergy.co.za | @zeropointSA | www.zpenergy.co.za

Zero Point Energy (Pty) Ltd is a proudly South African sustainable engineering company that provides professional engineering consulting & turn-key solutions in the areas of energy efficiency, renewable energy, off-grid and energy storage solutions, and efficient water usage & heating. The company is a 100% black youth-owned, 30% black female-owned EME achieving a Level 1 BBBEE Contributor status, and has a passion to transform the energy industry without compromising on safety, quality and client satisfaction. Email: info@zpenergy.co.za Web: www.zpenergy.co.za

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