Solar Offers a New Use for Tobacco Farm Land

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Tobacco has long been one of the most profitable and important crops for farmers across the country, but in recent years its profitability levels have begun to fall. Heavy taxation has led to increased prices, and with fewer people picking up cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco, the crop simply isn’t worth what it used to be, and that’s presented a huge problem for farmers who have been utilizing it to make a living for generations.

However, a new study from Michigan Tech University suggests that building giant solar panel arrays over former tobacco farmland would be a healthier and more beneficial use of the land, as well as a more profitable one for farmers in the long run.

The Study

Ram Krishnan, an alumni of Michigan Tech who now designed large solar panel systems, and Joshua Pearce, a professor of materials science and electrical engineering, conducted the study which they published earlier this month. The researchers claim that converting tobacco fields on large farms into giant solar panel arrays can not only help reduce preventable deaths from tobacco, but can also help combat the growing problem of climate change.

Krishnan and Pierce selected North Carolina as their case study sample because of its many large tobacco farms and high solar potential. Using positive but conservative estimates for the declining value of tobacco crop yield price and the escalation rate for electricity (the amount which the price increased year-over-year), the two calculated that switching these fields over to solar power could provide thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars more per acre in profit per year. That gap would only get greater over time as the demand for tobacco declines and the cost of energy increases.

However, even beyond the profitability for tobacco farmland owners, there are more benefits that the entire planet could enjoy from this kind of a transition. Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable deaths every year, and reducing the tobacco supply would only encourage even more people to avoid picking up the habit. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control agrees, stating that nearly half of a million lives would be saved every year by eliminating all American tobacco farms, and more than 42,000 more would be saved from the disastrous health effects of secondhand smoke.

The environment itself would also benefit in a similar way. Krishnan and Pierce estimate that if every tobacco farm in the state of North Carolina were to switch over to solar power, they would produce an estimated combined 30 gigawatts of energy, enough to power the entire state during peak hours of the middle of summer, when strain on municipal grids is at its highest. This would eliminate the need for coal-powered energy entirely, which the research team estimates would save 2,000 American lives every year just from the reduction in air pollution.

Why Tobacco?

This raises an interesting question: if tobacco farmland has such a massive potential for good, then why not consider converting other farmland as well to provide the country with even more clean power and reduce our dependence on coal-driven energy even further? The answer lies in food supply—for every food-producing field you switch to a solar array, the world’s food supply becomes that much shorter. Eventually, with too many farms switching over, food prices would rise and scarcity would ensue, causing a massive spike in world hunger.

The Challenge

So why not implement these findings as soon as possible? Simple: the market hasn’t quite gotten to the point where swapping from tobacco to solar is entirely viable just yet, and a project of the magnitude described is far too expensive for the majority of tobacco farmers. Conservative estimates state that the cost of switching over the average tobacco farm to a 10 megawatt solar array would cost approximately a dollar per watt, or $10 million.

As a result, Krishnan and Pierce argue that the onus is on local governments and investors to create programs that can help ease this necessary burden by making capital available. By making this switch easier, farmers could start seeing greater profit margins all year-round and from a more reliable source that’s not as easily influenced by things like high winds, freezing temperatures, snow, and more.

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