A New Kind of Farming

Agriculture is a vital part of North Carolina’s economy. There are 52,000 farms in the state, encompassing 27 percent of our land area. But now, there’s a new crop: Solar electricity generation. North Carolina ranks third in the nation in installed solar generation.

Utility scale solar can be contentious in political circles, but rural residents have found benefits without downsides. A recent North Carolina news piece featured a family who has farmed the same land for five generations. When first approached by a solar developer in 2013, they scoffed at the idea of leasing some of their acreage for solar. But farming is a challenging  venture that grows increasingly difficult: The family’s crops had failed three out of the previous six seasons. The family decided to research the subject. They continue to farm, but they have diversified their income with a utility-scale solar lease and by operating a business mowing solar fields.Solar is a perfect fit for farmers, as adding solar leasing of unimproved or unused land provides them stable new income..

Why is Solar Good for Rural Communities? New Income, New Tax Base

By definition, solar arrays are developed on land that is not economical for other purposes. Solar lease payments to property owners may range from $250 to $2,000 per acre, per year, depending on energy infrastructure in the area. Solar hosts may also benefit from reduced electricity costs and other perks from their electric utility. Some farmers choose to lease degraded land which would otherwise sit fallow while nutrients and fertility are restored. Others may utilize solar to innovate their planting and extend growing seasons; panels can provide shade for heat- and sun-sensitive plants, or offer opportunities for new shade-resistant crop markets.

What’s more, solar facilities generate enormous sums of new property tax dollars for rural communities. A study of 70 North Carolina counties shows enormous increases in property tax value in primarily Tier 1 and Tier 2 areas — without the public expense other kinds of improvements required (sewers, sidewalks, and schools). Though landowners pay taxes on lease payments, most developers contractually cover property taxes, deferred taxes, and decommissioning costs for the project. 

How Does Solar Impact Agricultural Lands? 

So, why are people still hesitant about solar? Industry opponents of renewables promote a lot of misinformation. A key myth suggests permanent land damage and lost farming potential. Evidence suggests the contrary–in an installation’s 20- to 25-year lifespan, solar can actually enhance soil quality, contribute to biodiversity, and bolster future production. This is particularly true if a farmer grows vegetables, soil-retentive vegetation, or pollinator-friendly native species under the panels.

Others worry that solar installations have too large of a footprint, and that they will take up too much cropland. On the contrary, only 0.19 percent of North Carolina cropland (9,000 acres) has been repurposed for utility-scale solar. For comparison, in recent years more than 1,000,000 agricultural acres were lost to housing and other developments. Even if solar provided more than five percent of North Carolina’s electricity, it would occupy less than 0.06 percent of the state’s agricultural land. Any additional concerns about environmental impacts, however minimal, are clearly defined and accounted for in a landowner’s contract with their solar developer. Decommissioning plans and budgets are a standard part of project development and leasing agreements. Overall, solar is a boon to the environment–it provides clean, climate-friendly renewable energy. 

What Happens at the End of a Solar Lease?

Nevertheless, many fossil fuel and monopoly-backed politicians seek to slow solar progress. 2019 saw a North Carolina state bill  proposing total prior securitization for proposed solar facilities. Though marketed as an effort toward “responsible” decommissioning, the requirement to set aside funding up front would have been cost prohibitive for solar development. This bill was ultimately replaced with a year-long stakeholder process and decommissioning study led by the NC Department of Environmental Quality that concluded early this year. The resulting report 

  • Estimated that NC will double its installed solar capacity in the next five years
  • Estimated that 8.5 million PV modules will be decommissioned between 2036 and 2040
  • Defined testing that qualifies PVs as solid or hazardous waste (note: most are classified as solid waste)
  • Requested national development of PV-specific hazard testing
  • Established an order of preference for managing retired/end-of-life PV modules
  • Anticipates a future rulemaking to define end-of-life PVs as universal waste, and
  • Determined that up-front financial assurances and bonds are unnecessary and only deter solar development and recycling

The study provided suggestions to standardize future investment in sustainable decommissioning, but did not mandate adopting any particular rules or regulations. This leaves counties on their own to create individual, differentiated standards–some of which may be inadequate or unsustainable. It is important to have a template that gives counties a solar development baseline. The North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center developed a model ordinance in 2016 which was intended for this purpose. This document needs an update for current technologies. We encourage statewide alignment on this planning to determine the best path for future solar growth.