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An analysis by researchers at Michigan Tech found that solar farms are more profitable than tobacco farms.
The southern United States is a vast expanse of fields and undeveloped land, much of of which has been used for growing tobacco for hundreds of years. Tobacco is a terrific cash crop, and tobacco farmers make lots of money selling it but a new analysis from Michigan Tech finds that these farmers could make even more money harvesting sunlight.
The Michigan Tech researchers looked at tobacco farms in South Carolina, where much of the country’s tobacco is produced and calculated the point at which farmers could make more money farming energy given the falling rates of tobacco use in the United States.
The researchers factored in a lot of variables for their analysis, including the dropping price of solar panels and the increasing value of electricity in the future. They also took into account that the price of tobacco would likely drop in the future, given the decreasing popularity of smoking.
The researchers expected to find the crossover point for solar versus tobacco profits somewhere in the future but, to their surprise, their analysis showed that solar was already more profitable than tobacco.
“We looked at likely trends in all of the major economic factors,” says researcher Joshua Pearce, “but were surprised to find that because the cost of solar has dropped so dramatically it is already economically advantageous for tobacco farmers to replace tobacco with solar in many situations.”
Crunching a few more numbers, Pearce and his team found that switching every tobacco farm in South Carolina to solar would generate 30 gigawatts of power, enough to run the entire state. This could also save two thousand lives per year by removing air pollution produced by fossil fuel plants. Of course this all assumes that the new solar tariff does not significantly impact the math.
There’s also the benefit from reducing the amount of tobacco people smoke. If every tobacco farm in the country became a solar farm, the researchers say that over half a million lives could be saved every year. That might be a little optimistic, but a reduced supply of available tobacco products could hardly be a bad thing for public health.
“The economic benefits for ex-tobacco farmers going into solar is nice,” says Pearce, “but the real payoff is in American lives saved from both pollution prevention and smoking cessation.”