Have you ever seen a gigantic, sprawling stretch of farmland and thought to yourself “Is there a way this land could be better-used?” Well, you may be right according to a new study from Michigan Tech that was published earlier this month. The study suggests that converting giant tobacco farms into massive solar panel arrays may not only be more useful and efficient, but more profitable for farm owners. This gives them a viable, healthy, and environmentally-friendly crop they can harvest well into the future!
The study, conducted by Ram Krishnan, an alumni of Michigan Tech who now designs solar systems, and Joshua Pierce, a professor of materials science and electrical engineering. In the study, they tackle the problem of needing large swaths of land to create solar panel arrays that can effectively harvest enough power to contribute to the grid while also making a profit compared to using the land to produce a crop.
The problem with converting arable farmland into solar production is that it reduces national and global food production numbers, thus contributing to rising costs and increased shortages. This is one of the reasons why you won’t see many food crops converting to solar systems anytime soon.
However, tobacco isn’t a “food” crop, and in fact doesn’t really much of any global usage beyond the production of cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco, all of which are known contributors to many various types of cancer. In fact, tobacco is the leading cause of preventable deaths around the world every year. Between rising taxes, the invention of the e-cigarette, and a large-scale public awareness campaign, sales have declined for big tobacco companies, and that means the time may soon come where using farmland to grow tobacco may no longer become profitable or even necessary. That’s bad news for farmers who have made their living off producing this crop, some for decades or even multiple generations. So what will they do if their crop becomes useless and valueless in the future?
An Eco-Friendly Solution
To study these effects, the pair conducted their study on North Carolina, one of the largest tobacco-producing states in the country. Using conservative but positive assumptions about tobacco crop yields and accounting for the decrease in tobacco demand, the study determined that electricity would soon become more valuable in terms of profit on a per-acre basis than tobacco. Even with only a modest escalation rate (the amount by which the price of electricity increases year-over-year), solar electricity profits were thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars higher per acre than tobacco after just a short period of time.
With the amount of land these farms are consuming, replacing them with large solar arrays can not only help them contribute to meeting an ever-growing demand for clean solar power but actually become even more profitable while combatting the growing problem of climate change. The study estimates that if every tobacco farm in the state were to convert to solar arrays, the energy generated would have the potential to reach up to 30 gigawatts, roughly the equivalent of the peak load the state sees during summer, arguably the busiest time of the year. And perhaps even better, the offset from getting grid of coal-powered electricity would save an estimated 2,000 American lives per year!
Additionally, solar arrays are far more durable than plants, being able to withstand snow, ice, hail, high winds, and other weather problems, making them far more durable and capable of yielding a valuable “crop” all year-round. There’s a much lower risk of a major storm destroying a crop or overworking of the land yielding disastrous results that can cost farmers thousands or even millions in income.
With tobacco on its way out as a high-value crop in the United States, now is the time for these farmers to start considering new ways to keep income coming in. Deploying solar arrays on their property can not only have tremendous benefits on the environment and public health sectors, but can actually wind up being even more profitable than tobacco ever was.
The study also suggests that now is the time for governments and investors to consider creating ways to help these farmers raise the capital they need to deploy such massive solar panel projects, which can run as high as around $10 million for a 10-megawatt system.
Curious about installing a high-efficiency solar panel array on your property? Contact the New Jersey solar panel experts at Sea Bright Solar! Call us at (732) 253-4052 for a free consultation.