Harvesting the Sun: Converting Cultivated Land into Solar Farms

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Chad Dacus is very proud to be a multi-generational farmer. He farms with his father, Chuck, near Somerville, Tennessee, on land passed down from his mother’s side of the family for more than a century. He says keeping this land in the family and preserving it for the next generation is his ultimate goal.

So nearly 10 years ago, when Dacus was first approached by an energy company about leasing property rights for a solar farm, he saw an opportunity to preserve the family property.

“At first it was more about keeping the land in the family,” recalls Dacus. “It was an opportunity to generate income and keep the land. And in 30 years, my children will be able to get something out of it.

Dacus eventually leased 100 acres to Invenergy, a company developing a 4,000-acre solar farm in Fayette County. Yum Yum Solar – named after the nearby community – is expected to produce 150MW of electricity when fully operational. The energy generated at the site will be purchased by Google to offset the carbon footprint of its new data center in Clarksville, Tennessee.

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Chuck and Chad Dacus at the switchyard under construction by TVA. This station could eventually transfer the solar energy generated by the farm.

Dacus admits in some ways that the decision was made for him. As surrounding neighbors signed contracts with the solar company, it made less sense to keep the plot landlocked in row crop production. Additionally, the annual payments offered through the lease would help offset the 400 acres of leased farmland the father-son team was already losing to the solar farm.

“Labour issues were another factor we considered. When dad retires, there is no help to replace him,” he said. “We don’t want to sell the land. We want to keep it in the family, but it would be harder to maintain without additional employees.

“We want revenues to be able to pay taxes and pass them on. That’s what it does.

A bright future for solar farms

Across the country, farmers like the Dacus are being approached with opportunities to lease land for solar energy projects. For many, the offers are too good to refuse. While today’s historically high commodity prices may have reduced the appeal of these offerings, in recent years solar farms have generated higher financial returns than traditional agricultural uses. They also serve to diversify income and reduce the risk of a poor growing season.

For rural communities, solar projects have generated new tax revenue and created jobs.

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An operational solar panel in West Tennessee.

Thanks to federal policies such as the Solar Investment Tax Credit and rapidly falling solar electricity costs, consumer interest continues to grow. While a recent report by US Solar Market Insight claimed that the first quarter of 2022 saw a 41% decrease in utility-scale solar installations compared to the first quarter of 2021, government agencies appear to remain committed to solar. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to 10 million customers in seven states, announced in May its goal to add 10,000 MW of solar power by 2035 to meet customer demand.

Considering that solar photovoltaic energy requires an average of eight acres of land per megawatt of power generation capacity, plus additional land required for transmission lines, TVA is expected to convert nearly 100,000 acres into solar farms over the next 13 years to meet this goal.

Nationally, the U.S. solar market installed a record 23.6 GW in 2021, despite supply chain challenges brought on by the pandemic and trade disputes. The Solar Energy Industries Association says solar installations will need to increase by 700 GW by the end of the decade to meet clean energy goals set by the industry and the Biden administration. Using the same calculations, this equates to an additional 7 million acres of solar farms.

changing landscape

It’s a beautiful drive from Chuck and Chad Dacus’ farm shop in downtown Somerville, TN to their farmland north of town. A two-lane road winding through vast fields of cotton and corn. The kind of trip made for a Sunday afternoon.

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Chuck Dacus points to the future site of a 4,000-acre solar farm in Fayette County, Tennessee.

The land bordering the highway is the site of the proposed 4,000-acre solar farm. Plans call for solar panels to cover about half the acres, with the rest of the land in setbacks and buffer zones. Regulations imposed by the county government aim to hide the signs from view from the road – preserving this pretty road – but in many ways the landscape of this farming community has already been altered.

As requests for new solar farms in the county continue to pour in, solar energy has divided local residents and even fellow farmers, sparking debates over property rights, green energy efficiency and the preservation of natural space. Second, growers and policymakers are increasingly concerned that solar farms are eating away at traditional farmland at an unsustainable rate. Even the Dacus are in conflict on the subject.

“We still believe in property rights, but it’s troubling that we’re losing productive farmland,” Chuck said. “Solar farms may end up being the best idea ever, but all of the political decisions that fueled the solar boom were made with mouths full and tables full. Eventually, you could take too much farmland out of the production.

Solar Concerns

Understandably, some farmers are concerned about growing competition for land from solar energy companies. According to a report from North Carolina State University, the financial returns of a solar lease are currently far superior to any other use of leased land. The demand for solar power puts acres out of reach for many growers.

Even land-owning farmers have expressed concern that taking acres out of agricultural production for 30 years could potentially deprive a generation of the practice of farming. If and when the land is returned to agricultural use at the end of the lease, will the new owners have the experience to manage it?

Another concern with installing large-scale solar farms is what happens to these facilities and their tons of equipment when they stop producing electricity? More than 75% of all utility-scale solar projects installed in the United States have come online in the past 10 years. We have yet to see these facilities go through their life cycle.

North Carolina, which led the Southeast in adopting solar power, is currently home to more than 23 million solar panels. Given the 25-year life expectancy of most panels, the NC Department of Environmental Quality estimates that up to 100,000 tons of material will need to be removed and disposed of in less than 10 years. These numbers are expected to grow exponentially over the next decade.

Chris Norqual, a solar energy expert and COO of Birch Creek Development has worked with solar development in North Carolina.

“We are planning for the future. In the event that a lease is over, we plan ahead for the dismantling and how we can leave the land exactly as we found it,” he said. However, few companies have faced the scale of sign decommissioning and disposal that North Carolina will experience in the coming years.

Norqual said landowners working with solar energy companies can tailor contracts to meet decommissioning needs. Currently, only a few states require solar project owners to submit decommissioning plans and proof of financial assurance.

Farmers’ experiences with solar farms

Despite all the uncertainties surrounding solar, it can be a lucrative business.

In 2018, James Lee Adams, a longtime farmer and former president of the American Soybean Association, leased nearly 1,000 acres of his Camilla, Georgia farm to Invenergy, the same company developing Yum Yum Solar in Tennessee. . Four years later, Adams is still happy with his decision to convert part of his farm to solar.

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James Lee Adams, Camilla, Ga.

” I’m happy. You can’t have a bad harvest in January,” he said, referring to rental payments that come on the first of the year.

“The safety and noise concerns of opponents of the project have not proven to be an issue, and I don’t think solar will take over the world as some fear,” he added.

Another reason Adams is at peace with solar farming is that he still considers it farming.

“Agriculture is always in transition. When I started farming, we had small fields and cattle. When we started removing the fences to put in row crops and pivot irrigation, some people lamented that,” he recalls.

“According to me, I’ve been in the power generation business all my life. Energy is energy, whether in the form of protein or electricity.

The Dacus hope their experience with solar will be as positive as Adams.

“We’re new to this and it’ll probably be five years before we can really assess our decision,” Chuck said. “Nobody convinced me that solar would be bad for our farm. Rather than being against it, we are looking for opportunities.”

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