Solar Power - A Sustainable Solution for Cold Chain Challenges
About 30% of fruits and vegetables grown in South Asia (India - 38.77 million tonnes amounting to US$ 13 billion) get wasted annually due to gaps in cold Chain like poor infrastructure, insufficient cold storage capacity, unavailability of cold storages in close proximity to farms, poor transportation infrastructure, etc. This results in instability in prices, farmers not getting remunerative prices and rural impoverishment. There is more wastage than consumption. Enough attention has been paid at the Pre-Harvest stage for boosting up the levels of production by techniques like crop rotation, soil conservation, pest control, fertilizers, irrigation, etc. But, Post Harvest issues have been addressed inadequately. Despite having achieved regional food security, the well being of millions of farmworkers who have been the backbone of the agriculture of the region continues to be a matter of grave concern. For India, every 1% reduction in wastage of fruits and vegetables would translate into savings of US$ 0.13 billion. The savings for the entire region would indeed be substantial.
Setting up of cold storages is difficult, unviable and uneconomical due to high operating costs for Cold Storage Units in the region - $2 plus per cubic foot per year compared to less than $1 in the West. Energy Expenses in the region make up about 28% of the total expenses for cold storages compared to 10% in the West. About 30-35% of these losses can be reduced by using solar photovoltaic power for cold storages and transporting the freshly harvested fruits and vegetables in refrigerated containers using solar PV panels to power the refrigeration machinery thus closing this gap in the cold chain. For India, we would need about 40,000 refrigerated containers of standard 20 feet size with about 20 million sq. ft. of solar PV panels fixed on their rooftops to be totally independent of the power grid or DG sets using fossil fuels, to transport this freshly harvested produce, placed strategically at various locations in the farms all across the country. Commercially, the payback period for this mammoth project is quite attractive. Refrigerated Containers score substantially over conventional refrigerated trucks in terms of suitability for this application in Indian terrain. The requirement for powering Cold Storages through Solar PV panels would be much greater.
Here, solar energy availability (Insolation) averages 5.0 KWh/sq. m/day with about 3000 sunshine hours per year. The average power consumption per TEU reefer container is about 5KWh and solar panels would generate sufficient power to run the refrigeration unit. Flexible solar PV modules and concentrators of up to 1600 times of solar energy can reduce the cost to US$ 0.05 per kWh. The sunshine in the region needs to be harnessed for a social cause.