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Why James Lee Adams wanted solar panels on his family's farm

The Southern Oaks Solar Project covers about 1,600 acres.

Brad Haire, Executive Editor

January 9, 2020

3 Min Read
The first solar panels didn't hit James Lee Adams' dirt until late 2018, but the idea for them struck him 14 years ago.Brad Haire

For decades, the big power line running through his land troubled James Lee Adams. It prevented him from improving some fields with irrigation pivots. He later saw the powerline differently.

"I still consider it farming. In farming, we use the land, water and minerals with the sunlight to create energy. With this (solar) we're cutting out the water and minerals and using the land and sunlight to still create energy," said Adams, on a clear sunny afternoon in January.

Adams entered into a 30-year lease agreement for his land to be part of one of the largest solar projects in Georgia. The Southern Oaks Solar Project covers about 1,600 acres, with about 900 of those belonging to Adams, along with some of his family member's land and neighbors. In all, he said, there's about 84,000 solar panels on the property with each panel supporting eight solar cells.

Chicago-based Invenergy financed and constructed the 160-megawatt solar project. Invenergy, through Camilla Solar Energy LLC, has a purchase agreement with Georgia Power to buy the energy produced by the project, environmental attributes and electrical products through 2049, according to a statement issued by Invenergy. This agreement is part of Georgia Power’s Renewable Energy Development Initiative.

Unique Opportunity

Though technically retired from tractor-driving farming since 2000, when he started renting out most of his row crop land and pecan orchards, Adams is well known in agriculture and likely by many Southeast Farm Press readers. In 2000, he was what was called at the time the Lancaster/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year. He was also past president and chairman of the board of the American Soybean Association and guided ASA through the 1990 farm bill negotiations.

The first solar panels didn't hit Adams' dirt until late 2018, but the idea for them struck him 14 years ago, he said, when he saw the powerline as a unique opportunity, not a hinderance. And water played a major role in that different look.

For decades, Georgia, Florida and Alabama have been enthralled in legal disputes over water in the ACF basin. And agricultural water use in the basin, where Adams' farm lays, has come under scrutiny throughout the water wars.

"I didn't like the idea of a federal decision or the stroke of a governor's pen jeopardizing our access to water, which would be devastating to our farming sector," he said.

He took out 10 irrigation pivots to make room for the project. "I was one of the first farmers in this area to put in a pivot in 1972. Now, I'm probably the only one taking them out," he said, with chuckle.

Future Decision

Adams says he is not persuaded by the climate change debate and jokingly said he doesn't believe the world is going to end in the next decade or two if folks don't turn from fossil fuels to solar or wind power. But he does appreciate the environmental benefits solar brings, particularly the water-saving it is doing on his land.

Solar made business sense for him. It took study, time, meeting new people and deals, he said, but he's proud of the results.

The return on the land planted in solar at this time "is several times row crop returns," he said.

But if current trade issues get resolved and global supply and demand starts to lean to higher prices for U.S. farmers and the tri-state water lawsuits go in a positive way for agricultural water use, well, he said he might regret the decision to go solar on some of his land, but he doubts it. At the very least, he has diversified further the family operation and its future.

"As farmers and businessmen, we need to look for opportunity, be willing to be flexible and try new ideas, whether it be new crop or practice or solar," he said.

When the initial 30-year lease for the solar project on his land expires in 2049, there is an option for an additional 30 years. He said he likely won't be around to make that decision for the land but believes someone in his family will be.

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