Farming and solar energy

By: By Dr. Ron Henigar - Guest columnist

(Editor’s note: This is the final rebuttal on the topic began two weeks ago on farming and solar energy.)

A preacher’s wife once made a statement about a parishioner who complained about her husband’s sermon –“Must have struck a nerve”. Such is the case in the response of the senior vice president of Strata Solar to my article on solar farming not being a good use of our land. He disputes my facts as fiction and substitutes his “facts” as the truth and says that I have a fundamental lack of understanding about solar energy and farming. The problem here is that it is Mr. O’Hara who has a fundamental lack of understanding about FARMING and solar energy. I can’t address all of his errors (willful or otherwise) in 250 words but let me address his misstatement of some of the facts:

Issue: The impact of solar farms on farming

As of today there are 25,000 acres of solar panels and 4,000,000 acres of farmland in North Carolina that comes to 0.625 percent not 0.036 percent. Funny how solar folks have trouble with math. To be fair he used figures from June but even those don’t match. Perhaps he thinks forests and farmland are the same thing. What is more disturbing is that all farmers know that the health of their farm is in their best land (more consistent at producing higher yield). The simple fact is that much of this 0.625 percent is prime farmland – the best in the world. My concern is that losing this prime land and the fact that the area that goes to solar farming is expected to at least double in the next year then we will be over 1% of our best farmland. You really expect that won’t have an impact on our agricultural system in North Carolina? As for stability for landowners this will be anything but stable as they go through changes in their operations. Of course, I would not expect Mr. O’Hara to realize this as he is not an agronomist.

Issue: Unlikely this farmland will be farmed again

Anyone who has gone through the tobacco buyout, change in peanut programs or the dairy buyout know that anytime government programs change the nature of farming changes. This is a government program to promote solar energy and it will change farming. Landowners who really believe they will be farming this land again are in for a rude awakening in what will seem like a few short years. Mr O’Hara has never farmed so how what would he know what has been the history of agriculture and the effects of these programs on agriculture?

Issue: Solar panels only capture 20% of the light

Three things happen to light that is incident on a surface – absorption, transmission, and reflection. I said the panels only absorb 20% of the light which Mr O’Hara agrees is true. I did not say the light then was transmitted through the panel. The rest of the light is reflected – some into the sky but most onto the ground. Don’t take my word for it. Just do a simple experiment. Just look at how much vegetation is growing under the solar panels and how much is growing in a field of corn or soybean in the summer. Solar panels are NOT efficient in using solar energy. Therefore, vegetation control in eastern NC will always be a problem. If Mr O ‘Hara refuses to recognize this fact then Strata Solar has a big problem. The use of terms like native plants and pollinators are good sound bites for the uneducated but are not methods of vegetation control. Mr O’Hara would do well to consult with some “real” experts in weed control at North Carolina State University.

I could go on with every so called fact that Mr O’Hara presents even those on how solar works and on the 1.6 tons of Cadmium-Telluride that is in each 100 acres of solar panels but I doubt if Mr O’Hara or most of the public is interested. The funny thing is that if we work together rather than wasting our time on opinion pieces and letters to the editor we can solve these problems through good land use planning that targets marginal and non-productive lands, good plans for effective and lower cost vegetation control, transparent and published plans for disaster response and decommissioning of these toxic panels, programs for integrating solar and agricultural farms, and solving the problem of intermittent generation of electricity. If Mr O’Hara was serious about the public good and solar energy he would be working with us “emotional” agronomists to achieve these ends. Instead like a good magician he uses slight of hand and questionable math to put us down and deceive the public. Yep, must have struck a nerve.

Dr. Ron Heiniger is professor of Crop Science at North Carolina State University.

By Dr. Ron Henigar

Guest columnist

Dr. Ron Heiniger is professor of Crop Science at North Carolina State University.