You can’t help but notice changes on the landscape of agriculture in North Carolina in the form of solar farms. The question arises are these uses of agricultural crops and soils every day something we will come to regret. As an agronomist who works crops and soils every day and as one who has gone through a life-changing event that changed my future from being a farmer in Kansas to my present position as an extension specialist, I feel it is important to point out a few facts that should be considered before signing that contract to lease your land for solar farming.
Fact 1. Solar farming will change the future productivity of the land.
Because solar panels only capture 20 percent of the light for only about five hours of the day the rest of that solar energy will pass through to the ground. As a result grasses, broadleaf weeds, and eventually woody shrubs will grow. There are only three ways that solar farms can deal with this unwanted vegetation, herbicides, mowing, or ground cover or a combination of all three. All of us who have farmed this land understand how hard it is to control weeds in crops that intercept over 80 percent of the solar radiation. You can only imagine how hard it will be to control this vegetation in a solar farm. High rates of herbicides, frequent mowing, and the use of mulches, rock, or plastic will all have negative impacts on the land from herbicide residues, soil compaction and erosion, and particles of damaged panels left in the soil resulting in contamination from heavy metals and rare earth elements used in solar panels. Remember, you still own this land and you will be held responsible for water runoff, cleanup, and off site effects not to mention the accumulation of weeds like Palmer Amaranth over time and the eventual need to replace fertility lost. Make sure you contract with the solar farm has a clearly stated plan for dealing with unwanted vegetation. Plans that just state the use of herbicides, moving or even the use of goats or sheep should be specific about types of herbicides, timing, rates, etc. Make sure these specific plans make sense for you land! Don’t accept anything that will harms the soil or its future productivity.
Fact 2. Because of this lost productivity and the resulting changes in the farming communities caused by the loss of land, it is highly unlikely this land will ever be farmed again.
Loss of a scarce resource like farmland will have significant impacts on you and your community. Land rents are increasing and will increase even more as solar farms compete for agricultural land. Currently, solar farms are leasing land at prices ranging from $400 to $1200 and acre. Not many farmers can afford to pay these kind of prices to farm the land. With the loss of land comes the loss of business for seed, fertilizer, and chemical dealers, hardware and lumber suppliers, equipment manufacturers and others in you community who depend on agriculture for their living. It is highly likely that our grain markets will have to adjust by moving livestock out of the state to areas with better grain supplies resulting in lower prices for grains in North Carolina. In short, over the span of the current 20-year lease agreements, agriculture will change such that even when the land becomes available, you will not be able to afford to put it back into production. Make sure you have a viable plan for how you will move forward with your farming enterprise. Today, farming depends on size of scale to make a profit. As you scale down, expect it to become more and more difficult to remain in the farming business. If you aren’t going to continue farming, what are you going to do? Have a future plan and execute it while you have the financial resources to do so. I had the idea that I would farm again when I took the payments in the dairy buyout in Kansas. How foolish I was to think you could go back again. This is life-changing money. Be prepared to handle the consequences.
Fact 3. You could be stuck with the cost of decommissioning these solar farms.
Currently, most solar operators are not required to have a decommissioning plan or to post a bond to cover the costs of decommissioning. Their current statement is: “this will all be taken care of in the future.” Have you ever considered why they are playing such high lease payments and not just buying the land? The fact is that these panels are considered toxic waste due to the use of metals like cadmium and rare earth elements. These panels have an expected life span of 20 years. Since they cannot be placed in landfills and are not accepted for recycling by any plant in the United States, it is highly likely that they will be abandoned at the site or you (as a land owner) will be forced to pay for them to be shipped to third world countries for recycling. Don’t trust others when they tell you this will be solved. It hasn’t been in the last 20 years and I wouldn’t bet my future on it begin solved. Make sure that the solar company has a viable decommissioning plan that spells out the terms of disposal, land grading, and restoration of the site to its original condition. Require them to post a bond to make sure they are still around at decommissioning time. By watching how fast they leave your driveway, you can tell how serious they are about the future of farming on your land.
Fact 4: Solar farming is not good use of our land.
Solar farms are highly inefficient at producing energy. It is only through generous tax credits, the waving of property taxes, zero interest start-up loans, federal and state mandates that require utility companies to pay for the power at generous rates, etc. that these solar farms even have a chance of operating. Right now, it is costing North Carolina taxpayers $124 million dollars in lost tax revenues. This loss is expected to grow to $2 billion by 2020 to enable these farms to remain viable. In other words, you and the schools in your community are paying the bill. It doesn’t make sense to pay for solar before paying teachers’ salaries. How much longer this can go on is anyone’s guess. I think it is unlikely that this can continue for very long and once this taxpayer largess ends it will end the era of the solar farm. For what? Not for green energy. Because solar power only occurs for five hours on sunny days. There are not batteries at any of these solar farm sites. The traditional utility companies still have to produce their normal power load for the remaining 19 hours on a sunny day. And, on a cloudy rainy day, they have to provide power for all 24 hours. They still have to be prepared to generate the same amount of electricity using fossil fuels with or without the solar farm! So let’s get this straight – we pay the taxes, we pay higher utility rates, we change our agricultural communities to accommodate these solar farms, and we don’t improve our climate or our environment. And, it can potentially ruin the land for our children and grandchildren. No, this is not a good use of our land!
Dr. Ron Heiniger is professor of Crop Science at North Carolina State University.