Farming the Sun
Solar power has experienced a massive surge of growth in the last couple of years as an increasing number of utility companies—and municipalities— turn to solar for a growing proportion of their power.
The Solar Energies Industry Association (SEIA) reported in June that the solar industry in the United States grew for the sixth straight quarter and added more than 2 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity in the first quarter of this year (one gigawatt is the equivalent of 1,000 megawatts, sufficient to supply a medium-size city). The association projects that the industry will nearly triple over the next five years, surpassing 100 GW nationwide.
Clearly, solar is a hot commodity, one that has captured almost universal interest and public support. SEAI reports that there are currently in its database 6,000 major solar projects that are either operating, under construction or under development.
Some cities are now powered entirely by renewable energy. Las Vegas is the largest, having announced at the end of 2016 that it had reached its 100 percent renewable energy goal, largely through the launch of a 100-megawatt solar plant just outside city limits. But even tiny towns are getting in on the act. Little Fairfield, Maine (population 7,000) and nearby Cinton, Maine (3,400) will dedicate 100 acres to solar energy fields that they believe will be capable of powering a total of 6,000 homes.
This drive to harness the energy from the sun is creating new opportunities for farmers and large landholders to generate income: through placing solar panels on their land. Some of them sign agreements with utility companies that allow the utilities to place the solar panels on the property, but increasingly, farmers and land owners are investing in the equipment themselves and selling the power. Solar panels and storage units are becoming less expensive, making the upfront investment much more feasible for a broader group, says Ed Cichon, solar team leader for American Diversified Energy Consulting Services (ADE).
“Utilities will be buying a lot of electricity in the next few years,” says Cichon. And increasingly, farmers who have been growing soybeans or other crops—always impacted by the weather and fluctuations in the markets and, therefore, highly variable in terms of the year-end profits—are turning to “farming the sun,” he says.
The profit potential of going in that direction is very site specific, he says, and dependent on many factors, including the local cost of electricity and the relative amount of sunshine an area receives. And yet, as advances in technologies continue, farming solar will become ever more financially attractive to a wider swath of landowners.
“Our advice to people is if you own property and have been approached to lease it for utilities to place solar panels, it would be worthwhile to think about developing the solar farm yourself,” says Cichon.
ADE has clients now for whom it is using its knowledge and skills to help them develop their land, or a portion of their land, into solar farms.