Today's Tobacco Field, Tomorrow's Solar Farm

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Researchers from Michigan Tech make the case for tobacco fields, like this one pictured in North Carolina, being converted into solar farms. . (Photo: teresaphillips1965/flickr)

Tobacco use among U.S. adults has been on a sluggish decline for some time now, experiencing a rare 2 percent drop between 2014 and 2015. Today, roughly 15 in 100 Americans over the age of 18 light up on the regular. And if trends hold true, that figure will likely keep falling.

This, of course, is encouraging news for public health officials. But for farmers whose livelihoods depend on folks buying smokes, it poses a problem. As Modern Farmer notes, the number of American tobacco farms has fallen sharply over the last two decades due to deregulation, foreign competition and nosediving smoking rates. In 1997, there were 836,230 acres of farmland dedicated to tobacco crops spread out across several states with North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and South Carolina leading the charge. By 2015, that figure had fallen a staggering 60 percent to 332,450 acres. Just 20 years ago, there were 93,330 U.S. tobacco farms. Today, there are roughly 4,000.

A majority of these erstwhile tobacco farms are now growing other, likely less lucrative, crops.

But as a new case study from researchers at Michigan Technological University suggests, tobacco farmers would be better off giving up agriculture altogether and harvesting the sun instead.

solar farm
Large-scale solar farms require large swaths of land, sometimes to the detriment of agricultural operations. (Photo: CLA Midlands/flickr)

Goodbye Pall Malls, hello PV panels

In the study Economic Impact of Substituting Solar Photovoltaic Electric Production for Tobacco Farming, Ram Krishnan and Joshua Pierce make the case for widespread tobacco field-to-solar farm conversions, arguing that such a switch would help decrease the number of preventable deaths caused by tobacco use while also bolstering clean energy production.

All the while, landowners would reap the financial benefits of abandoning tobacco production. Thanks in part to a variety of economic factors considered by Krishnan and Pierce — decreasing prices for photovoltaic hardware, rising prices for electricity and, as mentioned, a drop in demand for tobacco products — these landowners could rake in more dough than they would harvesting the lucrative cash crop used to manufacture a box of Marlboro Lights.

Building out solar farms requires — often to the detriment of local ecosystems — massive expanses of land. In many cases, viable agricultural operations are sacrificed to give way to large-scale solar operations. "To completely eliminate the need for burning fossil fuels, solar technology requires large surface areas," explains Pearce in a Michigan Tech News article.

It’s a bit of a Catch 22: renewable energy production grows while the amount of arable land available to feed a growing population is diminished.

On the other hand, converting tobacco fields to solar farms wouldn’t claim valuable new agricultural land — it would just repurpose existing farmland.

Elaborates Michigan Tech News:

However, as demonstrated by the conversion of cropland to energy for ethanol production, removing arable land from food production can cause a rise in global food prices and food shortages. Targeting land that grows crops with known health hazards for solar energy production removes a detrimental consequence from the equation, the researchers say, and the potential to convert tobacco fields to solar arrays could provide a tantalizing opportunity for farmers to increase their profits thousands of dollars per acre per year by transitioning from tobacco to solar.

Sounds like a win-win, right?

Vintage Tobacco Festival postcard, North Carolina
A switch from tobacco harvesting to solar-power generation would have the greatest impact in North Carolina, according to Michigan Tech researchers. (Photo: UNC Libraries Commons/flickr)

Easier breathing in the Tar Heel State

For the study, Krishnan and Pierce focused exclusively on North Carolina, the leading state for tobacco production and one that also happens to have high solar potential. (North Carolina ranks second, just ahead of Arizona, in the U.S. for solar energy capacity. California claims the top spot by a mile.)

Theoretically, if every tobacco farm in the Tar Heel State were to give way to solar energy production, there’d be the potential to generate 30 gigawatts. That's enough juice to power the entire state through a sweltering Piedmont summer. "In the long run, tobacco farmers stand to make more money farming solar rays for energy instead of growing a component of cigarettes," concludes Michigan Tech News.

Researchers note that local state governments would need to step in and assist tobacco farmers with making the switch, given that the capital cost of installing a utility-scale solar system is usually formidable. With state-subsidized financial backing, landowners would be more likely to take the plunge. (On a federal level, it's hard to imagine support for a large-scale tobacco-to-solar shake-up happening anytime soon.)

In addition to the positive health impacts associated with fewer Americans puffing on cigarettes, Krishnan and Pierce estimate that fully transforming North Carolina’s tobacco fields into solar power plants would help prevent 2,000 deaths a year attributed to air pollution, as clean energy replaces coal-fired power.

"The economic benefits for ex-tobacco farmers going into solar is nice," Pearce tells Michigan Tech News, "but the real payoff is in American lives saved from both pollution prevention and smoking cessation."