Sun pumping

 By Michelle Leslie

Images of parched land and a blistering hot sun are common in the Middle East. In one of the largest desert regions in the world, water is in short supply. And that supply is shrinking. The solution from solar…

(Cover photo by

According to a recent report by NASA’s Goddard Institute, the area is experiencing its worst drought conditions in centuries. “From 1998 to 2012 (the region) stands out as about 50 percent drier than the driest period in the past 500 years, and 10 to 20 percent drier than the worst drought of the past 900 years.”

A historical water shortage and explosive growth are also straining the water supply. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has seen water demand almost triple since 2000, at about the same rate as population escalation in the region, according to the Regulation and Supervision Bureau. As the population has expanded so too has the demand for energy and food supplies. For farmers, this demand has come with a high price tag, making electricity for irrigation out of reach for many.

That is until now.

NASA temperature January 2016

Grundfos made headlines this past October at the premiere Dubai Solar Show with its solar inverter. Working with traditional submersible pump (SP) irrigation systems, solar-powered inverters provide the energy needed to the agriculture sector while cutting costs for farmers who can now get more water per watt of sunshine.

Irrigation pumps are a critical component of the agriculture sector. Diverting water from a main source and equally distributing it onto fields, they allow farmers to regulate the rate, quantity and timing of water flow to crops. Irrigation systems protect crops from wind erosion as moist soils are better protected from winds. The systems can also help cool crops and their surrounding soils, although they require a significant amount of energy.

“Most people do not know that 10 percent of the total global electricity is consumed by pumps. If all of the pumps in the world were replaced with the latest technology overnight, 4 percent of the planet’s electrical energy could be saved, according to Henning Sandager, Grundfos Area Managing Director, Middle East and Turkey. “Huge gains, both for the environment and operating costs, can result from replacing or upgrading one simple, integral component found in every type of agricultural operation-irrigation pumps.”

Resistant to dust, rain and even snow, these solar inverters are also able to withstand scorching desert heat. The pumps are capable of operating in temperatures of up to 60 degrees Celsius. The inverters are installed directly on a solar panel and do not require additional ventilation or weather-proofing, only a short DC cable to convert a traditional system into a solar-powered pump.

Through its innovative technology, the systems can be pre-calibrated in a workshop, allowing for a quick and easy ‘plug and pump’ setup that can be completed in a matter of minutes. The inverter also works around the clock. Although it relies on the sun for most of its operations, the unit can be switched over to a generator to use back up power sources at night. “There is an increasing focus on getting as much as possible out of irrigation systems, more crop per drop,” stated Sandager. “The needs of current and future generations cannot be met unless the world changes the way it uses energy and water.”

Affordable alternatives to energy are necessary. The latest report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in their 2016 Energy Outlook predicted that global demand for electricity is forecast to increase by almost 70 percent within the next 25 years by 2040.

In Bangladesh, the Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Development 11 Project (RERED11) in partnership with the World Bank, is working hard to provide solar power to people in rural communities. The vast majority of farmers in the country rely on diesel-powered irrigation pumps. It’s a costly endeavor. It costs close to a billion dollars in fuel per year to run the pumps in a country where most farmers make less than $3.00 per day.

Bangladesh agriculture a key driver in reducing poverty

Under RERED11, solar-powered irrigation pumps produce huge benefits to farmers in the area. One pump can irrigate 20 acres of land three times, cutting costs by almost half. It’s an important step to improving livelihoods in a region that is dominated heavily by agriculture as recently noted by the World Bank. “Agriculture has played a key role in reducing Bangladesh’s poverty from 48.9 percent in 2000 to 31.5 percent by 2010 with over 87 percent of rural people part of their some income from agricultural activities.”

This new solar approach to farming provides a means of increasing water capacity for food production, removing reliance on costly fuels, and providing a pathway to food security. It’s a pathway that the UAE is looking to build upon, according to the International Renewable Agency (IRENA). The country has big plans for solar power. Their goal is to green the grid with 25 percent of renewable energy online by 2030, of which, almost all will come from the sun.

SEE MORE: New era of farming by RP Siegel

about the author
Michelle Leslie
Alberta, Toronto and now Ottawa. Meteorologist, Journalist & Munk School Of Global Affairs Fellow.