Over the last few years, new “solar farms” have been cropping up in parts of North Carolina and now eastern Virginia. I have observed forestland being clearcut and replaced with the solar panel installations. Agricultural land is also being taken out of production to install the solar panels.
Due to renewable energy mandates on power companies and incentives of state and federal subsidies, landowners are receiving something like $300 to $900 annually per acre for long-term use of the land for solar energy. And some companies (and colleges) who want to be “greener” are embracing these solar energy farms. For example, in late 2016, one news article reported that Google’s data centers around the world would receive 100 percent of their energy from wind and solar farms by some point in 2017.
Are solar farms preferable to tree farms?
I remain convinced that many forested areas in the U.S. South—perhaps several million acres—would currently be “non-forest” land if not for the economic value of timber. While forests provide numerous, varied benefits, it is usually the value of timber as wood and paper products (with renewable wood energy added to the mix for good measure) that provides the ultimate incentive for landowners to keep their land forested, rather than converting the land to other uses.
The solar farm phenomenon in some areas of the U.S. South is an example of unintended consequences. We need to make public policy makers understand the likely deforestation consequences of providing artificial incentives for land uses that compete with forestland.