Squaring the circle - Designing the energy [r]evolution pump

The challenge we face is a big one. To make a dent in the dominance of the diesel pump we need to offer a real, viable alternative to it.

An ideal renewables-powered competitor would replicate the most popular pump today, a 2-3 HP Honda pump.  It would cost 300 USD or less, pump the same volume of water at the borehole (say 10 liters per second from 5m depth) and be as small and portable as the Honda. Such a pump would be a no-brainer and take India (and the world) by storm.

But the limitations of physics and existing technology make this unlikely. Consequently, for this challenge, we’re asking for something ambitious but not impossible: a renewable-powered pumping system that provides enough irrigation utility at a price low enough to bring the investment risk down to an acceptable level, while still being portable.

That means the following:


Total system cost must not exceed INR one lakh - or 100,000 Indian Rupees - which at current exchange rate is about 1500 USD.

That is still ten times more than the cheapest Chinese pump, and about five times the price of a Honda. But it’s also less than half of the lowest-priced currently available solar systems, and if we consider that a farmer can easily spend 50,000 INR a year on fuel and maintenance for a diesel, one lakh becomes a sweet spot where amortization of the investment within roughly one year becomes possible. One lakh is also a significant psychological mark.

Pumping performance

We could define a minimum pumping performance at the borehole, but considering the difficult challenge of energy density and the fact that many of the pumps used today for flood irrigation are often both oversized and inefficient, we decided to apply a more flexible, relative requirement:

To qualify, your system’s pumping performance must be sufficient to irrigate a 1 hectare plot of a typical Bihar produce (see agro profile in this post), pumping groundwater from 5m depth.

We realize that this gives you some flexibility (a hectare of rice needs much more water than a hectare of vegetables), and while 5m depth will likely cover many Bihar pumping scenarios, it will not cover all. But what this criteria should assure is that the pump will be useful for a large number of Bihar farmers, be a potential mass market product - which is what we are aiming for.

It also means that what matters is how much water your system gets to the plant itself, so if you incorporate a drip irrigation system, you can compensate for a lack of sheer pumping power by wasting less water during “delivery” to the plant. Keep in mind however that the one lakh price limit is for the entire system, so it will have to cover both the pump and any additional components you choose to include.


To qualify, your system must be at least as portable as an “old school” Kirloskar 5HP pump. As shown here, this means that it must be able to move it around with a horse or bullock cart. Of course, lighter is always better, but that is the minimum requirement.

Robustness and serviceability

The story of “western technology” laying abandoned in the field, because it broke and could not be locally fixed, is as old as development aid itself. Lets not repeat that mistake yet again in our challenge. 

Remember that the main weakness we have identified with diesel pumps is high running cost, a big part of which is maintenance. If our pump means to compete with diesel, it must require significantly less maintenance. And if maintenance is required occasionally, it must be possible to perform it locally, in the village, at minimal cost.

So if you use high tech components that cannot be easily replaced on site in the village, you must make sure they are very well protected from damage (and have a strategy in place to allow farmers to repair them should they break anyway). Parts that can be replaced or repaired locally by a village mechanic are always preferable.


There are also several features that are “nice to have” -- if you manage to include them, it will increase your chances of winning, however they are not mandatory. These are mainly:

Backup power

If your system offers a way to be operated by an alternative power source, especially solar power, it will reduce farmer risk. Being able to provide irrigation when the renewable power source fails will greatly help farmers overcome the “no sun, no water” fear barrier.

Additional benefits

If your system offers some new, additional benefits which diesel pumps lack, it will increase your chance of winning. Think along the lines of charging cell phones, an integrated reading light for the children to study at night, a fan… Keep in mind that many of the villages where your pump will be used have no or just very irregular electricity supply, so such benefits matter a lot and will make it easier for your pump kit to compete in the marketplace with a diesel pump that “just” pumps water and nothing more.

We realize that designing such a package is not easy, but this community of designers, engineers and creative thinkers is capable of incredible work and we’ve got a great team of jurors and subject matter experts to help us along the way.  The increasing costs and externalities associated with fossil fuel powered pumps are a major problem for agriculture around the world, and a solution to this problem will be life-changing for a vast number of people.   Let’s do it!


Are there many open wells large enough for a 12 inch dia. pump?


There are quite a few, but ideally the solution that can be used in borehole wells, 4 inch, as well. So its not limited to where old government wells still are operational.


making this portable for this situation briefing is a no-brainer winner: http://www.futurepump.com/sunflower.html it's not my technology, but it's a FANTASTIC ONE! Check out the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5K-an...


I think their tech is somehow open source? Maybe you can do a mod and participate?


Whar are the types and qty of biomass availible cause failing solar biomass gassification is the only way to go from waht is see and it would be in the realm of portability under your definations.


Relevant case study: The feasibility of renewable energy sources for pumping clean water in sub-saharan Africa: a case study for Central Nigeria