2017-03-13 / Columns


Farmland for solar farms

In parts of rural South Carolina, a little extra income could be the difference between the poverty line and a middle class life for some households. The state has the chance to help those households with a significant windfall and provide cleaner energy for thousands of other residents at the same time.

That’s an opportunity worth seizing.

Over the past few years, the solar industry in neighboring Georgia and North Carolina, along with several other states, has worked to help landowners convert unused farmland to mini power plants.

Landowners earn rent on property that was otherwise being wasted. Solar companies earn money and employ workers. Utilities add renewable energy to their portfolios. And thousands of residents get clean, green electricity.

It’s a pretty great deal all around.

But other states have offered substantial tax breaks in order to make solar more competitive with other energy sources and allow companies to pay a healthy rent for the land they use — as much as $750 per acre per year. South Carolina hasn’t caught up quite yet.

As of last year, solar companies had invested about $245 million in this state. Georgia, by comparison, has enjoyed $1.9 billion in investment and North Carolina a whopping $5.5 billion, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

That’s why bills in the S.C. Statehouse would offer a statewide tax break of 80 percent for solar farms that set up shop on unused agricultural land. It’s a major break, for sure, and the solar industry owes it to South Carolinians to prove that it’s worth the cost.

It’s also important that South Carolina consider the impact on the state’s agricultural industry. After all, converting farmland to solar facilities obviously reduces the amount of property available for growing food.

But farmland is exceptionally good for solar energy production. It’s usually flat and already cleared, for example. And if it’s not being used for anything, it makes sense to let rural landowners cash in on a technology that could supercharge South Carolina’s renewable electricity portfolio.

Indeed, at least 90 rural properties are already under consideration for solar farms across the state, according to the S.C. Solar Alliance. Those projects are on hold, however, pending the outcome of the tax break legislation.

The state already generates a lot of electricity with relatively low carbon emissions — and that’s about to be doubly true if and when two new nuclear reactors under construction in Fairfield County go online. Further reducing the state’s dependence on fossil fuels is still a worthy goal, however.

That’s because the entire South Carolina coastline is under threat from rising sea levels related to climate change. And increasingly unpredictable patterns of drought and rainfall threaten inland areas as well — particularly farmland.

So solar power is definitely something worth encouraging in South Carolina. And if it’s going to take a tax break to compete with neighboring states, that’s unquestionably something the Legislature should seriously consider.

If farms aren’t being used for food — or any other kind of agriculture — it just makes sense to use them to harvest the power of the sun.

— The (Charleston) Post and Courier

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