Harvesting Sunshine More Lucrative Than Crops at Some U.S. Farms

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

For more than a century, Dawson Singletary’s family has grown tobacco, peanuts and cotton on a 530-acre farm amid the coastal flatlands of North Carolina. Now he’s making money from a different crop: solar panels.

Singletary has leased 34 acres of his Bladen County farm to Strata Solar LLC for a 7-megawatt array, part of a growing wave of solar deals that are transforming U.S. farmland and boosting income for farmers.

Farmland has become fertile territory for clean energy, as solar and wind developers in North America, Europe and Asia seek more flat, treeless expanses to build. That’s also been a boon for struggling U.S. family farms that must contend with floundering commodity prices.

“There is not a single crop that we could have grown on that land that would generate the income that we get from the solar farm,” said Singletary, 65.
The rise in solar comes as the value of crops in the Southeast — with the exception of tobacco — has dropped. Cotton prices have fallen 71 percent in the last five years. Soybeans are down 33 percent and peanuts have slipped 16 percent.

Solar companies, meanwhile, are paying top dollar, offering annual rents of $300 to $700 an acre, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association. That’s more than triple the average rent for crop and pasture land in the state, which ranges from $27 to $102 an acre, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The economic incentives spurring solar will be discussed at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference in New York starting April 4.

“Solar developers want to find the cheapest land near substations where they can connect,” said Brion Fitzpatrick, director of project development for Inman Solar Inc. of Atlanta. “That’s often farmland.”

Developers have installed solar panels on about 7,000 acres of North Carolina pasture and cropland since 2013, adding almost a gigawatt of generating capacity, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association. Georgia has added 200 megawatts on fields and cleared forests over the same period, much of it farmland, according to the Southface Energy Institute of Atlanta.
The number of megawatts developers can generate per acre of farmland varies, based on weather patterns, size of the panels and contours of the land. On Singletary’s farm, Strata Solar installed 21,600 panels, each about 6 feet by 3 feet (1.8 meters by 914 centimeters). Combined, they can power as many as 5,000 local homes.

Long-Term Contracts

Farmers typically lease a portion of their land, signing 15- to 20-year contracts with developers who install the panels and sell the power to local utilities. In rare cases, farmers have leased their entire property to solar companies.

Singletary signed a 15-year lease in 2013, with two 10-year extension options, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based Strata sells the power to Duke Energy Corp. He declined to disclose financial terms.

Government incentives have played a key role in the spread of solar farms built on real farms. North Carolina granted developers tax credits equal to 35 percent of their projects’ costs though a program that expired at the end of 2015, helping make the state the third-biggest U.S. solar market. In Georgia, the Public Service Commission passed a bill in 2013 requiring the state’s largest utility, Southern Co.’s Georgia Power, to buy 525 megawatts of solar by 2016. Both policies sent companies scouring for open space to build.

Solar panels have buoyed tax bases in impoverished rural counties, said Tim Echols, a member of the Georgia Public Service Commission. They also let farmers diversify their income with revenue that’s not subject to markets or unpredictable weather patterns.

‘Stable Income’

“Solar and wind farms have become a new stable income stream for farmers — and they don’t fluctuate with commodity prices,” said Andy Olsen, who promotes clean energy projects in rural areas for the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center.

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Lacrosse Tribune: ELPC Applauds Solar Leadership by Wisconsin’s Electric Cooperatives

Monday, March 7th, 2016

Using nature to help generate power isn’t exactly a new idea.

These days, when you factor in regulatory and environmental concerns and stir in the debate about climate change, all of a sudden it’s a fascinating — and sometimes frustrating — debate.

But two utilities in western Wisconsin have announced a significant investment in harnessing solar energy to generate power — and they’ve done it the old-fashioned way.

They’ve made the decision because it makes good business sense.

For the people of our region — from energy users to ratepayers — this is good news all around.

Barbara Nick, CEO of La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative, said: “It’s finally solar’s day in the sun.”

Projects announced recently by Dairyland and Xcel Energy will nearly double the capacity to generate solar energy in Wisconsin:

  • Dairyland will purchase power from 12 new solar arrays with a combined capacity of almost 19 megawatts.
  • Xcel will purchase up to three megawatts of electricity from community-owned solar gardens in western Wisconsin.

Investing in and developing natural sources of energy — and reducing reliance on fossil fuel — is the right strategy for the future.

As Nick pointed out, members of her cooperative believe it’s a good idea — and it certainly diversifies the cooperative’s portfolio.

Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, says 2016 will be Wisconsin’s year in the sun — in part because a drop in prices has made photovoltaic generation cost-effective for utilities as well as residents, business and nonprofits.

So, what does it mean when a utility like Dairyland adds a capacity of 19 megawatts? That can power the homes and farms of about 2,500 members of the cooperative.

It also means that Dairyland can reduce the amount of energy it buys on the open market — something it has had to do more of since it shut down five coal-fired boilers at its plant in Alma in 2014 as part of its agreement to settle a pollution case with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The moves by Xcel and Dairyland also demonstrate that “Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives are now national and state leaders in solar energy,” said Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Madison.

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Dairyland Power Announces Historic Co-op Solar Advance

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

(February 25, 2016) Wisconsin’s Dairyland Power Cooperative and its member cooperatives announced a historic investment in solar energy on Wednesday unveiling plans to build more than 15 megawatts of new solar energy at 12 locations across Wisconsin.

The announced projects will nearly the double the amount of solar power installed in Wisconsin, which now has about 25 megawatts of installed solar. The projects will be built by solar developers SoCore Energy, based in Chicago and groSolar based in White River Junction, Vermont. Together the installations will create enough electricity for more than 2500 homes.

“Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives are now national and state leaders for solar energy,” said Andy Olsen, Senior Policy Advocate of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Madison. “Dairyland was clear that this effort grew out of support for solar from their members, commitment to diversifying their generation and stabilizing costs.”

Brad Klein, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Law & Poli (more…)