SunWater is developing a "radically affordable" solar water pump for poor farmers

SunWater Solar pumping system
© Paul Polak/SunWater

In many places of the world, it's hard enough to grow food to feed your family, let alone to grow extra to sell for a source of income, but when poor farmers do get the means to grow cash crops, it can help to lift them and their community out of poverty. But getting the means to do so can be rather difficult, especially when it comes to irrigation and watering, which is often dependent on human power or expensive diesel fuel to deliver.

One project that's working toward more affordable and sustainable watering solutions in order to break the poverty cycle in poor communities is SunWater, which aims to produce a "radically affordable" solar water pumping system.

There are already other solar powered pumping systems available, which would cut costs for farmers over time (when compared with continued dependence on diesel pumps), but they tend to require quite a high initial investment ($5000 PV powered pump system vs. $500 diesel pump).

What sets SunWater apart is that it takes a systematic approach to water delivery, and is working toward an end-to-end optimized irrigation system, where each component is made more affordable or more efficient, from the panel to the pump to the drip irrigation system. Their aim is to produce a 2kw solar powered system that they've designed (which is comparable in capacity to a standard 5hp diesel pump), along with the pump, a storage tank, the irrigation tubing, and installation, for about $2900, which is well below the cost of alternatives.

The SunWater design, instead of having several solar PV panels, calls for flat mirrors to reflect more sunlight onto a single panel, which they estimate will enable them to boost the power output of that panel by a factor of 10, which would make the system much more cost effective.

According to this piece at the NY Times, other examples of building efficiencies into the design include:

"We can provide a drip irrigation system that costs $1,400 for one hectare, less than half the cost of conventional systems. Replacing earth channels by lay-flat hose and conventional surface irrigation by low cost drip at least doubles crop/drop efficiency. Fine tuning impellers to the exact vertical lift improves efficiency by as much as 40 percent." - Paul Polak, SunWater

According to SunWater, this system would be capable of irrigating a one hectare (about 2.5 acres) farm plot, which could boost the production of small farmers enough to transform their lives by not just subsisting on what they grow, but by also allowing them to produce a cash crop for some income. In addition, the system can be paid off in just a few years, after which the irrigation system can continue to provide water without any costly fuel inputs.

The folks behind SunWater, led by Paul Polak (author of Out of Poverty, and responsible for getting 1 million foot-powered treadle pumps to farmers in developing areas), include experts and engineers in solar technology, water management, irrigation, and water pumping, and they believe they have what it takes to deliver on their promises.

The SunWater campaign is currently looking for backers at Indiegogo, where its goal is to raise $50,000 in order to build a proof of concept prototype for testing (by volunteer engineers at Ball Aerospace), a full-sized model for field testing and further modification, and then eventually release a production model.

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