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Serving: Central

Harvesting the sun

Utility-scale solar farms are becoming a more common sighting in the Midsouth.
As the demand for solar energy grows what are the implications for agricultural production?

Chad Dacus takes great pride in being a multi-generational farmer. He farms with his father, Chuck, near Somerville, Tenn., on land that has been passed down through his mother’s side of the family for more than a century. He says keeping that 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 family property.  

“At the beginning it was more about keeping the land in the family,” Dacus recalled. “This was an opportunity to produce an income and keep the land. And in 30 years, my kids can get something from this.” 

Dacus eventually leased 100 acres to Invenergy, a company developing a 4,000-acre solar farm in Fayette County. Yum Yum Solar — named for the nearby community — is expected to produce 150 MW of power 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, Tenn. 

Ginger RowseyChuck and Chad Dacus at solar farms

Chuck and Chad Dacus at the switching station being constructed by TVA. This station could eventually transfer generated solar energy from the farm.

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

“Labor issues were another factor that we took into consideration. 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 income to be able to pay the taxes and pass it down. That’s what this is doing.” 

Solar farms bright future 

Across the nation, farmers like the Dacuses are being approached with opportunities to lease land for solar energy projects. For many the offers are too good to turn down. While the current historically high commodity prices may have lessened the attractiveness of those offers, in past years solar farms have delivered higher financial returns than traditional agricultural uses. They also serve to diversify income and reduce the risk of a bad growing season. 

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

Ginger RowseySolar Panels 1 - web.jpeg

An operational solar array in western Tennessee.

Thanks to federal policies like the Solar Investment Tax Credit and rapidly declining costs of solar electricity, consumer interest continues to grow. While a recent report from U.S. Solar Market Insight claimed Q1 2022 saw a 41% decrease in utility-scale solar installations from Q1 2021, government bodies seem to remain committed to solar. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to 10 million customers in seven states, announced in May their goal to add 10,000 MW of solar power by 2035 to meet customer demand.  

When you consider that photovoltaic solar energy requires an average of eight acres of land per megawatt capacity of electrical generation, plus additional land area needed for transmission lines, TVA would need to convert close to 100,000 acres to 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 installs will need to expand 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 math, that equates to 7 million additional acres of solar farms. 

Changing landscape 

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

Ginger Rowseyman drives truck

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

The land flanking the highway is the site of the proposed 4,000-acre solar farm. Plans call for solar panels to cover roughly half of the acres, with the remaining land in setback areas and buffers. Regulations imposed by county government aim to hide the panels from the view of the road — preserving that pretty drive — but in many ways the landscape of this farming community has already been altered.   

As applications for new solar farms in the county continue to roll in, solar energy has divided local residents and even fellow farmers — sparking debates over property rights, effectiveness of green energy and preservation of natural space. Then there is the growing concern among producers and policy makers that solar farms are eating away at traditional farmland at an unsustainable pace. Even the Dacuses are conflicted on the subject. 

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

Solar concerns

Understandably, some farmers are concerned about the growing competition for land from solar energy companies. Financial returns from a solar lease are currently far greater than any other leased land use, according to a report from North Carolina State University. The demand for solar is putting acres out of reach for many producers.  

Even landowning farmers have expressed concerns that removing acres from agricultural production for 30 years potentially removes a generation from the practice of farming. If and when land is returned to agricultural use at the end of the lease, will the new owners have the experience needed to manage it? 

Another concern about the installation of large-scale solar farms is what becomes of these facilities and their tons of equipment when they cease generating electricity? More than 75% of all U.S. installed utility scale solar projects came online within the past 10 years. We’re yet to see these facilities run through their life cycle. 

North Carolina, which has led the Southeast in solar adoption, is currently home to more than 23 million solar panels. Given the 25-year life expectancy of most panels, N.C.’s Department of Environmental Quality estimates as much as 100,000 tons of materials will need to be removed and disposed of in less than 10 years. Those numbers are forecast to increase exponentially during the following decade.

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

“We do plan for the future. In the event a lease is finished, we plan ahead for decommissioning and how we can leave the land exactly how we found it,” he said. However few companies have faced the scale of decommissioning and panel disposal that North Carolina will see in the coming years.

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

Farmer experiences with solar farms

For all the uncertainties surrounding solar, it can be a lucrative venture. 

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

Brad HaireJames Lee Adams.png

James Lee Adams, Camilla, Ga.

“I’m happy with it. You can’t have a crop failure in January,” he said, referencing the lease payments that come in at the first of the year.  

“The concerns opponents to the project had about safety and noise have not proven to be an issue, and I don’t think solar is going to take over the world like some people fear,” he added. 

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

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

“The way I see it, I’ve been in the energy producing business all my life. Energy is energy, whether it’s in the form of protein or electricity.” 

The Dacuses are hopeful their experience with solar will be as positive as Adams.

"We're new to this, and it will probably be five years before we can truly assess our decision," Chuck said. "No one has convinced me that solar will be bad for our farm. Rather than being against it, we're looking for opportunities."

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