Converting Tobacco Farms To Solar Fields Could Be A Win For Everyone

It'd do more than increase the amount of clean energy.

Michigan Technological University researchers say that converting tobacco farms to solar fields would be profitable for the farmers. 

Called "Economic Impact of Substituting Solar Photovoltaic Electric Production for Tobacco Farming," a new study claims that farmers could increase profits by as much as thousands of dollars per acre per year. The study was completed in one of America's largest tobacco-producing states: North Carolina. 

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"Previous, more modest attempts to offset fossil fuels with biofuels required so much land that food crops were offset, raising food prices and increasing hunger throughout the world," Joshua Pearce, a professor of materials science and electrical engineering, told Michigan Technology University. "We were looking for large areas of land that could be used for solar power that would not increase world hunger."

Because the cost of solar is dropping and tobacco use across the country is also decreasing, the research suggested that the switch could benefit the economy as well as the environment. Pearce and his research partner Ram Krishnan, an engineer designing solar systems in the United States, found that when taking into account most modest increases in the future cost of electricity, the value of solar becomes far more profitable than growing tobacco. 

"We were interested in what conditions were needed to enable tobacco farmers to begin installing solar energy systems on the same land," Pearce added. "We looked at likely trends in all of the major economic factors, but were surprised to find that because the cost of solar has dropped so dramatically it is already economically advantageous for tobacco farmers to replace tobacco with solar in many situations."

If every tobacco farm in North Carolina were converted to a solar field, they could generate 30 gigawatts — enough power to fuel North Carolina for an entire summer, according to MTU.

Tobacco plants that have had the lower leaves harvested in North Carolina. Guy J. Sagi / Shutterstock

It wouldn't just be the farmers and environment that would benefit, either. The switch would change some public health outcomes. Pearce and Krishnan estimate that the reduction in pollution by coal-powered electricity would save 2,000 American lives each year. And, per MTU, if a conversion program were deployed nationwide, it could save 480,000 lives thanks to fewer tobacco users.

Economically, the biggest hurdle is getting tobacco farms to convert, which could cost an initial investment of up to $10 million for a 10 megawatt farm. Pearce suggests that the government could help the transition, arguing that the benefits of such a switch would be worth the investment.

All across the United States, novel ideas are being proposed on how to combat climate change and increase the use of renewable energy. A group of youth is suing the government to try to force them into creating eco-friendly energy systems. An 11-year-old started a nonprofit to clean the oceans. Bill Gates has invested in several innovations — most notably recycling systems that produce electricity and a carbon capture system that also creates carbon-neutral fuel — that could address the current climate crisis.

"The economic benefits for ex-tobacco farmers going into solar is nice," Pearce said told Michigan Tech University. "But the real payoff is in American lives saved from both pollution prevention and smoking cessation."
Cover photo: Shutterstock photos by Zbigniew Guzowski and Mny-Jhee

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