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Farmers Quit Corn; Grow Solar Power

Words by Leon Kaye


One of the arguments used against solar power deployment is the amount of space needed for all of those solar panels. Although one study has shown that 0.6 percent of all land in the U.S. would be needed to completely electrify the country, the fight still goes on, even as solar and wind power technologies continue to increase in efficiency while decreasing in costs.

The fight is also occurring in counties across the U.S., as landowners and farmers seek new ways to generate revenue. Most of rural America has missed out on the economic revival that has conjoined technology and urbanization in many cities, so these counties are also seeking new ways to generate tax revenues. Farmers, of course, have also taken a hit due to the ongoing slump in global commodities.

The controversy over farmers having the right to sign contract with solar and wind power companies is now taking center stage in North Carolina.

The combination of the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (REPS), which requires utilities operating in the state to generate some electricity from renewables, along with its booming tech culture, has turned the Tar Heel State into a solar powerhouse. In fact, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) says North Carolina ranks third in the nation amongst U.S. states in total solar capacity. Last year, the installation of over 1,100 megawatts of solar power placed North Carolina in second nationally in new solar generation.

And much of this power is generated in rural counties across the state, from the northern border with Virginia to along the South Carolina state line. According to Solar Strata, one company that is riding North Carolina’s solar boom, these new solar farms are appearing on farmland where crops such as tobacco, peanuts, cotton and corn can no longer earn enough money for farmers to keep their land. Other sites are appearing on fallow land that has not been farmed in years. Companies such as Solar Strata pay rent to these farmers, with contracts that often last as long as 20 years. As quoted by one farmer who was interviewed by Joe Ryan of Bloomberg, “It gives me a way to keep the farm . . . and pass it to my grandchildren.”

Not everyone in North Carolina is pleased with farmland being converted from tobacco farms into solar farms. One NC state senator, Bill Cook, a Republican from Beaufort County, attacked the idea, saying that solar’s outcome is “pretty well ruined” land that was once used for farming. Of course, while bemoaning this loss of land, Cook has been quick to tout road projects underway in his senate district, lost land notwithstanding. Clean energy advocates retort that issues about which Cook has complained, such as soil compacting from solar farms’ gravel roads, and the use of herbicides (which would have been used on those farms anyway), are insignificant problems. Meanwhile, the NC Sustainable Energy Association has said that out of the 8.4 million acres of farmland in the state, the 100-plus solar farm projects have taken up no more than 0.12 percent of that land.

One region that could take a few notes from North Carolina’s success is in California’s San Joaquin Valley, home to the state’s fifth largest city, Fresno. While this past year has seen ample rain and snowfall, the valley is still reeling from years of drought. But the need to create energy for other growing cities such as Visalia, Merced, Modesto and Bakersfield has started to pit farmers against clean energy advocates. Current efforts, and organizations seeking to ramp up clean power generation, are fledgling at best. But more farmers in central California are considering leasing their land for solar farms, which stirs up almost as much angst as the High Speed Rail project. Considering the fact that the cost of solar continues to spiral down, and future clean energy requirements due to California’s renewables mandate, watch for solar leases in this region to become a much more viable option. After all, renting one’s land is much more palatable than eminent domain.


Image credit: Strata Solar

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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