If you drive through rural Midwest in summer, chances are you’ll pass cornfields as far as the eye can see. A small amount of that corn ends up in grocery stores and eventually the dinner table. Much more becomes livestock feed or ethanol. A growing number of people now realize the potential of an alternate use for all this acreage, for corn to share the fields with solar arrays.
More than 33% of all corn grown in the U.S. is used to produce ethanol. The number spiked after 2005 when gas standards allowed ethanol to account for up to 10% of all fuel classes. In Iowa, 57% of corn grown accounts for 27% of all American ethanol production.
The Iowa Corn Growers Association says just 1% of corn grown in the state is sweet corn intended for human consumption. The rest is field corn that can be made into corn starch and corn syrup, but usually ends up as livestock feed or ethanol, or manufactured into synthetics like plastic, cornstarch for diapers or a textile for carpets or rugs.
Most of the corn the 15,000 corn farmers in Wisconsin grow stays on family farms to feed dairy cattle and other livestock. Just about 3% go to exports, food and other everyday essential products.
Taking all that into consideration, the development of solar projects on agricultural land would have a minimal impact on food production across the country. Many farmers already lease their land for solar projects.
John Butterbrodt, a farmer in Dodge County, Wisconsin, proudly talks about being a farmer and leasing his land.
“In the past years, my tenant grew corn on this very land,” said Butterbrodt. “And that corn went to the ethanol plant, and they produced ethanol that you used in your car.”
Today, he proudly leases his land to Alliant Energy for our Beaver Dam Solar Project to produce a natural fuel – solar energy.
“Now our land is home to 120,000 solar panels, which will soon begin producing electricity, which you can use in your electric car or your homes,” Butterbrodt said. “It’s a new way of getting energy for the future in our country.”
More cars and devices become electric, and a Clean Wisconsin analysis found solar projects produce 100 times more energy per acre than corn ethanol.
“Farmers grow a variety of crops important to families in Wisconsin,” said Chelsea Chandler, Clean Wisconsin’s Climate, Energy and Air program director. “When it comes to growing crops for energy, ‘growing solar’ is a better bet for farmers, families, our water, and our climate than corn for ethanol.”
According to the report, Wisconsin would need approximately 280,000 acres of solar panels to be carbon free by 2050, just one-third the land currently used to grow corn for ethanol.
Of course these calculations will likely need revision to account for the incredible progress manufacturers continue to make in the efficiency of solar panels. Just last month, a South Korean firm announced a breakthrough with tandem solar cells that can increase panel efficiency 50% to 75%.
These advancements mean less acreage is needed for the same amount of production. That makes it even easier for ethanol and solar production to coexist. At Alliant Energy, we’ll explore more opportunities for solar power and agriculture to work together to benefit our customers and communities. Through our Clean Energy Blueprint, we continue to power what’s next.
Chris is a Communications Partner specializing in Alliant Energy’s renewable investments. Coming from a journalism background, he’s excited to tell the story of Alliant Energy’s Clean Energy Blueprint and other renewable trends in new and exciting ways.