The unexpected benefits of replacing tobacco plantations with solar farms

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Researchers at Michigan Technological University suggest that tobacco growers could increase their income by converting their plantations to solar farms.

According to the study “Economic Impact of Substituting Solar Photovoltaic Electric Production for Tobacco Farming,” tobacco cultivation lands provide an interesting opportunity for solar energy development in the U.S., as tobacco consumption in the country is decreasing, while demand for land for solar farms is increasing.

North Carolina was chosen for this case study because it hosts several tobacco producers and has large swathes of land and high solar potential.

“Previously, 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. We were looking for large areas of land that could be used for solar power that would not increase world hunger,” said research coordinator, Joshua Pearce.

In addition, the research team has stressed that, unlike tobacco plants, solar modules can withstand extreme heat, cold, ice, snow, hail, torrential rain, droughts and other unstable weather conditions.

The researchers conducted an analysis on the economic factors of installed solar farms and their effects on profits, while comparing profits from such a business with gains from growing tobacco.

The scheme they used was quite conservative: They applied positive assumptions about the yield and price of tobacco crops, noting that there could also be a decrease in the demand for tobacco since fewer people are starting to smoke and current smokers die. They then analyzed how much the price of electricity could increase each year based on real data.

When making the analysis, the tobacco producers should also calculate LCOE (levelized cost of electricity) for their solar farm and compare it with the price of electricity in their particular location, fee structure and load, as well as other economic factors.

The researchers concluded that, if each tobacco farm in North Carolina was converted to solar energy production, there is the potential to generate 30 GW, which is equivalent to the state’s maximum summer peak load.

“In the long run, tobacco farmers stand to make more money farming solar rays for energy, instead of growing a component of cigarettes,” the research group asserted.

But not only farmers would benefit: if U.S. tobacco plantations would become solar farms, around 480,000 deaths per year of current smokers, and more than 42,000 deaths per year caused by passive smoking, could be avoided.