US Farmers add Solar for Higher Returns

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US Farmers add Solar for Higher Returns

Corn farmers in the US increasingly turn to solar energy to lower the costs of their farming operations, but it’s always not how you might think. These farmers are seeing the value of solar as a crop – solar farming and agrovoltaics.

Corn is one of the most important crops in the United States. It is a staple in the diets of many Americans and is used in various products, from human food to animal feed to ethanol. Corn and soy are subsidized, but it is not an easy way of life; one bad year can make or break an operation. They spend so much of their income on expenses like fertilizer and fuel for machines that a bad year means they don’t make much, if any, money. Corn farmers are always looking for ways to increase their yield and improve their bottom line.

In Wisconsin, one million acres of prime farmland are used to grow corn that is then converted into ethanol. The researchers at Clean Wisconsin published a report that makes some startling observations. 

The state of Wisconsin already uses 1,000,00 acres of agricultural land to produce energy, primarily corn. As a form of energy production, ethanol is less efficient than solar photovoltaics (PV). Solar PV has an Energy Return on Investment of around 8x, whereas corn-derived ethanol has a Return on Investment of about 1.2x. 

The researchers argue that the 1 million acres of Wisconsin farmland used to grow corn for ethanol could generate a hundredfold more energy if solar farms were constructed instead. In a press release, one of the researchers states that he worries about how much land would be taken out of production for solar panelling, but the point may be moot. The research evidence shows that producing energy from solar requires far less land than corn ethanol. 

A farmer’s income from corn production often makes the difference between making a living and bankruptcy in the region. Why would they want to change a system that has supported them for generations? One reason is income stability. The uncertainty of how much a farmer will earn from one year to the next is one of the challenges of farming.

It was reported in a local newspaper that more than half of the solar lease farmers in 2021 received $750 or more per acre, according to Clean Wisconsin. Net corn profits typically are less than $600 per acre, placing a good corn year on the lower end of solar leases because corn fluctuates from year to year and the government payment structure complicates profits to farmers. 

Farmers are practical, proud people in touch with the land. Many are becoming disillusioned with a system that pays subsidies to fertilize and produce a crop that isn’t really that valuable in the open market. Maintaining dignity is tough when you feel that government payments are a form of welfare. A solar lease payment, though? That is an actual transaction that values both sides of the equation and enables the farmer to remove themselves from the cycle of industrial corn farming. 

Growing corn for ethanol may help farmers’ incomes due to government subsidies, but it isn’t a sensible choice for society, given its low efficiency. In the future, efficiency must be a major consideration. Electric cars are an example of how this works — they convert 80% of battery energy into motion, much more than the 25% in combustion-powered vehicles. Our agricultural industry should take the same approach and make more with less.

 

Investing in solar energy production can be a great way for US farmers to stay on their land and improve their financial returns. By switching from subsidized ethanol corn farming to solar power generation, growers can access clean energy options that will boost the profitability and reliability of their operations and become a part of the massive green shift that is occurring right now. 

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