A lot has been said about consequences of inadequate cold storage facilities on perishable fresh produce in India. In a tropical country like India, the importance of refrigeration can hardly be over-emphasized. About 54.6% of country’s population is engaged in agriculture, contributing around 18% to its GDP. The country produced 312 million tonnes of fruits and vegetables during 2021-22. It is not as if the country has not progressed on this front. As per the National Centre for Cold-chain Development, as of August 2020, the total cold storage capacity in India was 37.4 million MT with 8,186 cold stores, up from 24.9 million MT capacity with 5,387 cold storages in 2010. However, as per a 2022 World Bank report titled ` Climate Investment Opportunities in India’s Cooling Sector’, “With only 4% of fresh produce in India covered by cold chain facilities, annual estimated food losses total US$13 billion.” Furthermore, “the largest gap can be noted in modern packhouses, with a requirement of 70,080, indicating an average need for one packhouse for every 10 villages” (https://bit.ly/3KSTpoz). A Pack house is an intermediate facility to carry out post-harvest processing and storage, near the farms.

But as if inadequacies of cold chain facilities were less worrisome, things are getting even more serious because of progressively erratic weather.  In August 2021, the 6th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the Indian subcontinent would suffer more frequent and intense heat waves over the coming decade. Further, there are likelihood of heat waves also spreading to southern India, where no heat waves are currently reported. Heatwaves of the future are likely to be “more widespread in area and of longer durations in India,” said a report published in May, titled ‘Climate Science to Inform Adaptation Policy: Heat Waves Over India in the 1.5°C and 2°C Warmer Worlds.’ (https://bit.ly/47ksQlF).  The average number of heat wave days rose to the highest in a decade in 2022, data released recently by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation showed. India reported 190 heat wave days in 2022 — over six times higher than the previous year.

Another crucial piece of the bigger picture pertains to India’s long-term goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2070 and its concomitant focus on sustainability, notably attaining greater energy efficiency and renewable energy utilization. The World Bank report quoted earlier estimates that by bridging gaps in cold chain in an environmentally sound manner could result in emissions reduction potential of 77 mtCO2e annually by 2038.

The lack of proper storage facilities has led to the consequences, viz (i) excess produce floods the market, resulting in either a glut or wastage or both and (ii) an artificial scarcity is created during lean periods. Farmers, the majority being marginal and small, are forced to sell their produce immediately after its harvest at low prices primarily due to the lack of immediate storage facilities. The conventional cold storages, set up in urban and semi urban areas are large, typically of 100 TR and above capacities. Moreover, they are designed for long-term storage. A 2017 report by the `Committee on Doubling the Farmers Income’ states that “Lack of cold-chain systems force farmers to monetize their produce at first instance by selling into food processing units, inefficient wholesale markets; and these sales are the only opportunity, low down in the value chain system, and do not empower the farmers.” And the greater the distance between the rural producer and the markets, the greater is the risk of post-harvest deterioration. Another overarching factor is the reliability of electricity supply in several rural areas even in post-SAUBHAGYA scenario. Clearly there is a need to enable farmers holding perishable produce in cold storage facilities till the time it can be sold at a remunerative price. These short-term transitional storages would help farmers store their horticulture commodities during the time of surplus (thereby obviating distress sale) as well as during such times when the produce cannot be taken to the demand centres because of any disruption in the supply chain.

The sustainable cold chains would, therefore, comprise a combination of centralized (most of present day large cold storages) and decentralized cold storages/cooling facilities (smaller ones at the farmgate, e.g., packhouses and multi-commodity cold storages for short term storage). To achieve potential emissions reduction in this sector, an important aspect is renewable energy integration. Solar cold storage does not mean retrofitting the large centralized cold storages with solar rooftop systems – which must be done in any case as a part of larger decarbonization effort. Rather, solar cooling/cold storages are especially designed autonomous decentralized/off grid products developed entirely around solar or solar plus grid along with thermal and/or energy storages. A value added-feature possible with decentralized solar cold storages is integration of IoT-based systems to remotely monitor the stored perishables. And since the peak cooling load and the peak of solar electricity productions coincides at around midday – when the Sun is at its strongest and temperatures are the highest – solar cooling offers a logical solution. By reducing the primary energy consumption, solar cooling technologies could also reduce the stress on distribution networks considerably.

There are a range of solar cooling technologies available today, from solar PV based to solar thermal energy driven absorption/adsorption systems. However, from the points of view of simplicity, robustness, and reliability; solar PV cooling systems have an edge. In a solar PV cold storage, solar PV panels are used to generate electricity. This electricity is then used in a cooling system, generally using the traditional vapour compression systems. Thus, instead of using grid electricity, solar electricity generated onsite is used to drive a conventional cold room. An added advantage is the use of existing after-sales service network for electric compressors and the related paraphernalia. However, due to the intermittency of the incoming solar radiation, energy storage or backup system is necessary to maintain the desired cold room temperatures. This can be done through batteries, thermal energy storage (e.g., PCM – Phase Change Materials or ice storage) or grid/solar hybridization; thereby obviating the dependence on polluting diesel generator sets.

Presently, some startups are offering customized models of solar cold storages commercially in India to suit specific needs and applications.  For instance, Inficold India Pvt. Ltd. offers 5 – 100 MT capacity modular solar cold storages with hybrid ice technology. Here, the coolth is stored in the form of ice during sunshine hours. This ice then provides the required cooling during non-sunshine hours. And in case the ice finishes but further cooling is required, the system switches over to grid electricity. Multi-chamber Inficold solar cold storages are also available, chambers having its own temperature set-points (https://bit.ly/47pDtn1). Likewise, Ecozen Solutions’ Ecofrost solar cold storages too have provision of ice-based thermal energy storage for backup of up to 30 hours. These hybrid cold storages switch over to grid or any other backup available onsite. They come with IoT enabled real-time predictive maintenance. In terms of ownership models, Ecofrost are being offered in both, upfront purchase as well as on lease rental model (https://bit.ly/3YsbbEq) or even at pay-as-per-use model.

Solar Cold Storage As A Service

An innovative business model tried out in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar let local farmers avail `pay-per-use cooling service’ for perishable horticulture produce. This solar-powered cold storage as a service was launched by Oorja Development Solutions in association with Ecozen Solutions (Ecofrost). The cooling service allows small and marginal farmers to store their perishable horticulture produce on a per-crate-per-day basis without having to make high upfront investment for technology acquisition. The 6 MT capacity Ecofrost cold storage is powered by 5 kWp solar PV system and has PCM based thermal energy backup.

Source: PV Magazine (https://bit.ly/3qnMoVE)

It is evident that the technological innovations need to be complemented with sound entrepreneurial business models. Given that this is an evolving field without tried and tested models, public funding is essential in the initial stages. Support may be provided to farmer producer organizations, agri-entrepreneurs, or even the individual farmers to implement viable solar cold chain solutions that are decentralized and distributed. The benefits far outweigh the investments, facilitating socio-economic upliftment of farmers and enabling them to become more self-reliant.

Undoubtedly, lack of proper cold storage facilities in rural areas has a huge economic cost, including a huge loss of human efforts, not to speak of other valuable resources. Furthermore, lack of proper storage of perishables also constraints potential for further processing. Farmgate cold storage facilities, apart from increasing their shelf life, can also enable further processing helping increase farmers’ income through export of quality and value-added food products.

Also, smaller and decentralized rural food processing units running on solar energy can safe-guard farmers’ interest arising out of any disruption of supply chains – as happened during Covid-19 pandemic. It is time to envisage climate and economic resilience of farmers in a radically different manner, one that is clean and in line with Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of self-sufficient rural economy.

Amit Kumar is a Senior Fellow, WRI India. Formerly, he was the Senior Director, Social Transformation, TERI. (Views expressed in the above article are his personal.)

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