Tobacco farm

Tobacco farms transformed into solar farms could benefit all, study suggests

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Researchers from Michigan Technological University have carried out a study which argues that tobacco farmers could profit from switching to farming solar energy - a move that would also help prevent early deaths and combat climate change.

Tobacco use is often credited as the leading cause of preventable death globally. However, as long as the tobacco industry remains highly profitable, tobacco farmers are likely to continue growing tobacco plants, their primary source of income.

As the world’s governments throw their support behind renewable energy - bound as they are by the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to reduce carbon emissions in an attempt to avoid the worst impacts of climate change – it could become more profitable to begin using this land to farm solar energy.

Solar technology has accelerated in recent years, its increasing cost effectiveness leading to increased demand in the US, UK and other countries. However, a large amount of land is still required in order to generate a useful amount of electricity.

“To completely eliminate the need for burning fossil fuels, solar technology requires large surface areas,” said Professor Joshua Pearce of Michigan Technological University.

“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.”

Rather than looking to convert land used for food production into solar farms, Pearce and his colleagues suggest that land used to grow tobacco and other health hazards is a more appropriate target for conversion.

This could allow tobacco farmers to increase their profits by thousands of dollars per acre, Pearce’s study suggests.

“We were interested in what conditions were needed to enable tobacco farmers to begin installing solar energy systems on the same land,” said Pearce. “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.”

The study used North Carolina as a case study, due to its high tobacco production and potential for solar farming. They conducted a sensitivity analysis on the effects on profit of installed solar farms and compared profit from solar energy with profit from continued tobacco farming, accounting for declining tobacco use in the US and the increasing cost of electricity.

Even with only modest increases in electricity costs, solar farming appeared to provide annual profit increases of thousands of dollars, even tens of thousands of dollars, per acre.

Farmers are held back from installing solar panels on their property thanks to the cost of installation: a standard 10MW farm could cost $10m (£7.2m) to install. State governments could help with this conversion, Pearce said, by exploring policies to help farmers convert. Following President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement – rendering it the only UN state outside the agreement – state representatives have been forced to take the lead in the fight to mitigate climate change.

If every tobacco farmer in North Carolina converted to generating electricity via solar panels, they could generate up to 30GW. This is equivalent to the entire state’s peak summer load. This could also save 2,000 lives per year from pollution reduction alone.

“The economic benefit for ex-tobacco farmers going into solar is nice,” said Pearce, “but the real payoff is in American lives saved from both pollution prevention and smoking cessation.”

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