From Peddling Death To Producing Clean Power?

Turning tobacco farms into solar power stations

Researchers at USA’s Michigan Technological University believe tobacco farmers could turn better (and more ethical) coin by harvesting the sun instead of the deadly crop.

Tobacco farming in North Carolina is big business, in fact it’s one of the most important industries in the state.

But tobacco has an image problem – mainly due to the fact smoking it kills up to half of its regular users. According to the World Health Organisation, tobacco kills more than 7 million people each year. It’s the coal of the agricultural sector.

Aside from perhaps helping to address that issue, converting from tobacco cultivation to solar electricity production would also avoid plonking large PV facilities on existing food-producing land1.

If every tobacco farm in North Carolina converted to solar energy production, there is potential for 30 gigawatts of capacity say the researchers, which would be enough to service North Carolina’s peak summer load.

That’s pretty good for the state’s energy supply, but what about the farmers?

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

A better way to make money that doesn’t involve a bunch of people dying sounds attractive, so what is holding farmers back?

One of the barriers may be capital – while the cost of solar panels and other components has dropped dramatically in recent years, a solar farm is a pretty big outlay. Perhaps if President Trump wants to Make America Great Again, he could fling some cash at this idea; of course specifying that any equipment used had to be made in the good old U.S of A (and therefore also avoiding the Trump Solar Tax); just to keep up appearances.

A successful switch from tobacco to solar would require farmers to secure agreements with customers, selling at a low of USD 10c/kWh and assuming electricity prices escalating in the years ahead. By “securing agreements”, whether it means the farmer would not only be a producer, but an electricity retailer as well isn’t clear. But that would need to be the case as 10c/kWh is rather costly compared to some of the prices being bandied about for wholesale electricity from upcoming large scale U.S. projects.

The study says if all tobacco use is eliminated by replacing tobacco farms in the U.S. with solar farms, more than 480,000 American deaths per year from cigarette smoking would be directly saved.

That actually happening as a direct result of the switch is unlikely.

The USA isn’t the only country where tobacco is grown – there’s millions of hectares still under cultivation worldwide. Legal tobacco farming in Australia ceased more than a decade ago, but Australians still smoke2.

However, such a move would definitely cut down on greenhouse gas and toxic emissions associated with coal-fired generation3, plus alleviate some of the other environmental problems associated with tobacco farming such as pesticide use.

“The economic benefits for ex-tobacco farmers going into solar is nice,” said Joshua Pearce, an author of the study and a professor of materials science and electrical engineering, “but the real payoff is in American lives saved from both pollution prevention and smoking cessation.”

The study, Economic Impact of Substituting Solar Photovoltaic Electric Production for Tobacco Farming, can be viewed here.

Footnotes

  1. There’s also opportunities for dual use – farming the sun and non-tobacco crops, or grazing sheep
  2. Albeit in decreasing numbers – in 1945 almost half of Australians were smokers, that had dropped to around 14% in 2016
  3. In 2016, coal’s share of the state’s net electricity generation was 28.6%
About Michael Bloch

Michael caught the solar power bug after purchasing components to cobble together a small off-grid PV system in 2008. He's been reporting on Australian and international solar energy news ever since.

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