A Dominion Energy solar farm in Powhatan County. Courtesy of Dominion Energy.

I recently went to a meeting in South Boston and took Virginia 40 east out of Rocky Mount, which skirts south of the Smith Mountain Lake dam and then heads east through Penhook, Gretna and lots of lots of countryside.

Along the way, I saw:

a) a murky waterway with the colorful name of Stinking River (clearly not named by the chamber of commerce).

b) a homemade yard sign that declared “secede.”

c) more solar farms than tobacco farms.

All that made me wonder many things but mostly: Does Virginia really now have more solar than tobacco in the heart of what once had been tobacco country?

The answer to this involved more math than I was expecting but is potentially revealing.

First, let us praise government statisticians for providing the data that help us understand the world around us in a factual kind of way. The U.S. Department of Agriculture tells us that last year Virginia farmers harvested 15,030 acres of the golden leaf. That’s just a shadow of the state’s peak of 172,100 acres of tobacco in 1939. That also means tobacco’s been on the decline in Virginia for more than eight decades. Virginia’s tobacco production had fallen by about half even before the surgeon general’s landmark report in 1964 warning that smoking tobacco causes cancer.

Anyway, we have 15,030 acres of tobacco.

Finding the number of acres of solar farms proved more difficult. The State Corporation Commission deals with large solar farms – anything more than 150 megawatts – but it doesn’t have figures for how many acres have been approved. The Department of Environmental Quality deals with small solar operations – less than 150 megawatts. It reports that it has issued permits for 54,692 acres, but that figure doesn’t distinguish between the number of acres with solar panels and the total size of the site – there’s typically a buffer around the arrays. There’s no rule of thumb, though, for what percentage of a site is “under panel,” and what percentage is buffer – it varies by developer and by parcel and by relevant local zoning ordinances. That means not all 54,692 acres actually have solar panels on them. Still, based on what we know about some solar farms (more on that to come), it’s reasonable to assume that most of those 54,692 acres have panels on them – or will. (A caveat: I’m counting the acres approved by solar, but some projects might not be under construction or completed yet, so when I refer to “solar acres” I mean what’s been approved.).

So, even just measuring the small solar farms, it’s clear that, yes, Virginia probably does have more solar acres than tobacco acres – no doubt a lot more. 

Still, that’s not a good apples-to-apples – or farm-to-farm – comparison. There are solar farms across most of Virginia (though few in Southwest so far) while tobacco has always been a regional crop. What I’m trying to figure out is whether in tobacco country we have more solar than tobacco. To determine that, we need to go to each tobacco-growing county and see what data on solar is available. That’s more tedious, but all of you who have generously donated to Cardinal News have done so, in part, so that we can do this kind of tedious work on your behalf.

Mecklenburg County is Virginia’s biggest tobacco-growing county. The latest USDA census said the county had 5,868 acres of tobacco in 2017. The department only produces that census every five years so maybe later this year we’ll get the current count, but for our purposes today, that’s the figure we’ll have to go by – even though the odds are there are fewer acres in tobacco now than there were five years ago.

Mecklenburg also has detailed data on solar – thank you, deputy county administrator Alex Gottschalk. So far, the county has approved 1,929.85 acres, of which 1,302.75 will actually have panels. There are applications pending for another 2,324.90 acres, of which 992 would have panels. If those applications are approved, Mecklenburg would have 4,254.75 acres devoted to solar, with 2,294.75 acres under panel. Neither figure is bigger than the tobacco acreage, but the former is starting to get close. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see a future where tobacco acreage shrinks some and solar acreage rises and those two lines cross – although it may take a while before the acres under panels tops the acres under leaf.

Pittsylvania County is the state’s second biggest tobacco county, with 4,942 acres harvested in the last USDA count. Pittsylvania’s solar count is difficult to compute; some applications list only the total acres, some list both the total acres and acres with solar panels. Since total acres is all we have for certain, that’s what we’ll have to go with. At present, Pittsylvania has 1,133 acres of solar farms with 1,755 more acres under construction, so that’s 2,888 acres – so well below the tobacco acreage. Last week, the county approves two more projects, totalling 99 acres, so that would bring things up to 2,987 acres. Clearly, my observations along Virginia 40 weren’t indicative of the total county. However, there are plans submitted for 9,478 more acres to be devoted to solar farms. Two of those applications involve projects that cross the Pittsylvania-Henry county line. One lists what the split would be, the other doesn’t, so the Pittsylvania County total would actually be somewhat lower than 9,478; we just don’t know how much lower (that total site is 1,400 acres with 600 acres under panel). If we counted all these projects, they add up to 12,366 total acres devoted to solar, although some of those acres are in Henry County. Just to err on the low side, let’s skip those projects entirely – that would bring the verifiable Pittsylvania numbers to 10,966 acres. Again, it’s unclear how many of those would actually have panels but even if it’s only half, that would mean Pittsylvania would have more solar acres than tobacco acres. If nothing else, it’s clear that Pittsylvania is on its way to becoming the state’s solar energy capital.

Lunenburg County is the state’s third biggest tobacco county with 2,520 acres. So far it has no solar in operation but two solar projects totalling 2,545 acres, with at least 1,400 acres “within the fence line,” are in the permitting stage, so whether solar will be bigger than tobacco there depends on which number you use. Meanwhile, the solar ordinance the county passed says that no more than 3,500 acres of “prime farmland” can be converted to solar and no more than 10,000 acres of “prime timberland.” That suggests at some point solar might well become bigger than tobacco there.

Brunswick County, No. 4 in tobacco production with 2,251 acres, has no solar. 

Halifax County is fifth in the state for tobacco production, with 1,745 acres of the leaf. So far it has 6,873.69 acres of solar approved, with 3,938.30 of those under panel, so even using that lower figure, it’s got twice as many solar acres as tobacco acres. This doesn’t count a project that came up for a public hearing last week that would consist of 841 acres of panels on 1,533 acres of land.

I could go on but you get the idea. I will mention just one more: Charlotte County, the state’s 10th biggest tobacco county with 523 acres of tobacco, has or has approved 6,431 acres under panel for solar, according to the county administrator. About half of that comes from the big Randolph Solar project, which would be the biggest in the state (3,000 acres on a 21,000-acre site).

Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel wrote earlier this year about the solar boom across Southside and I wrote about how some are feeling overwhelmed by this – they see the rural character of the community changed by what seems to them an industrial operation. Others see solar as a property rights issue, and a way for farmers to make money on land that otherwise wasn’t producing much. It’s complicated. You can have that debate somewhere else. My aim today is to document the transition of tobacco country to solar country, not make value judgments on it.

There’s another way to try to measure the tobacco/solar comparison besides acreage and that’s through the value of the product produced. Once again, the USDA serves up a simple, handy figure. It says the value of the tobacco Virginia farmers produced in 2021 was $73.176 million. So what’s the value of the solar energy produced? That’s a much more difficult figure to find.

I turned to William Shobe, director of the Center for Economic & Policy Studies at the University of Virginia, who has devoted a lot of work to the economics of energy. Here’s what he sent me. (Beware, it’s long, but if you’re looking for simple answers, you’re in the wrong place. We are not Twitter.)

Here is my back of the envelope estimate.

In 2021, solar generated 3,365 terrawatt hours (billion kilowatt hours) of electricity in Virginia. It will be considerably more than that this year.

If we assume that natural gas (methane) for power plants costs about $6,240 per million cubic feet (about the average for US electric utilities in the first quarter of 2022, it’s higher right now), then the amount of electricity generated from solar saved over $147,070,212 in natural gas purchased from Texas, Pennsylvania and other places. Once a megawatt of solar is built, it sits there generating about $43 per megawatt hour in saved natural gas import costs. We are now creating energy in Virginia that we used to have to import from other places. This is a big gain to the state economy.

Again, this is based on last year’s figures. I expect solar will generate nearly 5,000 TWhs this year for a whopping savings on imported gas of around $220 million. (If I had calculated the savings using coal as the fuel, the figures would not change appreciably.)

The total cost of building, financing and maintaining a new solar facility will result in a cost of $33/MWh for the electricity (averaged over the lifetime of the plant). Comparing the cost of building and financing a solar plant against the average fuel cost at Virginia plants burning natural gas, we are saving about $10/MWh. In 2021, that would be more than $30 million. This year, the solar we had on the ground at the end of 2021 will save ratepayers close to $50 million. This is a very conservative estimate because it uses the full cost of solar but only the fuel cost for the electricity generated with natural gas. For example, it doesn’t include operation and maintenance on the gas plant but it does for the solar plant.

That gives you a sense of the magnitude of the savings we are getting from our investment in solar. Each additional 1,000 megawatts of installed capacity will earn an additional $80 million or so in saved fuel costs. Taking into account the cost of building the solar, ratepayers save roughly $20 million/year (net) for each added 1,000 megawatts.

The figure you gave for tobacco is the market value of the product, the gross, not the net. It does not subtract off the cost of growing the tobacco. Accounting for the costs of labor, land, fertilizer, pesticides, etc. we can see that tobacco has a net value for Virginia of much less than $73 million per year.

I think it is fair to say that, even with the solar we had on the ground at the end of 2021, solar will be saving Virginia ratepayers more than the value of all tobacco production to the state’s economy.”

That seems pretty powerful.

There are at least two other ways to measure tobacco-vs-solar. Or maybe just one.

We could try to measure jobs but I’m not sure how to compute that. A farmer who grows tobacco likely grows other crops as well, plus livestock, so I’m not sure how to apportion all that. Solar farms may generate a lot of construction jobs when they’re being built, but not while they’re being operated. Both tobacco and solar generate jobs downstream – in tobacco production, and in utilities for solar. I’m inclined to skip over this category because, frankly, it seems too complicated. Plus, those jobs aren’t necessarily in the tobacco-growing (or solar-growing) counties, which is my focus.

A final way to compare the two is to look at the revenues produced for local government. Would a county government make more money taxing a tobacco farm or taxing a solar farm? Halifax County administrator Scott Simpson offers this view: “Tobacco supports revenues to our farmers. Solar companies lease land from most of the time, the same individuals, and likely provides more revenues for a passive type effort. Solar also provides direct tax and other revenues to the County, which tobacco really does not have a direct tax collection. Also, sometimes the farmers are not the landowner so a tobacco producer may not get any revenues if the land is leased for a solar project; so there could be a loss for someone. Most of the time, solar isn’t about the county revenues, it is about our citizens being able to sustain their families by utilizing their land how they choose.”

Again, none of this is intended to make a value judgment on whether converting tobacco fields (or land of any kind) to solar is a good thing or not, just to show the degree to which this transition is happening. Across Southside, tobacco has been declining since 1939. Solar is now on the rise. If it hasn’t eclipsed tobacco in places already, it eventually will. We know what it once meant to Southside to be the state’s tobacco capital; it was a source of both pride (the baseball team in Danville was called the Danville Leafs) and prosperity. The question now is what it will mean to be Virginia’s solar capital.

Coming tomorrow: I’ll try to answer that question.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.