Over the past few weeks we have seen some exciting approvals of major solar farms in Wisconsin. The Badger Hollow, Two Creeks, and Richland County solar projects would combine to be 500 megawatts (MW) of solar power capacity, enough to supply about 130,000 homes’ average electricity usage each year in Wisconsin. Once completed, the 500 MW of solar photovoltaic (PV) will increase the state’s solar capacity five-fold. But a concern has been raised about how much land these projects will use, and the implications of future solar farms on Wisconsin cropland.
To learn more about these issues, we have analyzed the intersections of utility-scale solar PV and conventional agriculture and found a number of interesting points centered on the change in crop production and harvested land in Wisconsin.
Crop Production in Wisconsin • 1982-2017
Our first analysis looks at the change in total harvested cropland from 1982 to 2017 and links this to the change in the amount of crops actually produced over the same time period. The key finding here is simple: we are growing more crops today than we were 35 years ago and doing so on fewer harvested acres of land.
Taking data from USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, we analyzed conventional harvested crop groups in Wisconsin between 1982 to 2017. We had some important findings. One, the total amount of land harvested for all crops has decreased by about 9% from 1982 to 2017. In 1982, a little more than 10 million acres of land was harvested exclusively for the production of crops. In 2017, total harvested cropland totaled 9.2 million acres. Figure 1 below shows the change in total harvested land in these 35 years. In short, urban and suburban development, federal farmland preservation programs, improved crop yields, and farm retirements and closures have contributed to this loss of harvested crop land.
The Ag Revolution – Increasing Production with Less Land 1982-2017
Despite having less acres of harvested cropland within the state of Wisconsin, we are growing far more crops today than we were in 1982. In that year, Wisconsin corn (for grain) totaled 322 million bushels. Fast forward to 2017, Wisconsin corn (for grain) totaled nearly 520 million bushels. Grain corn is primarily used for animal feed, and about 37% of harvested corn goes to ethanol production. The rest of the corn is typically exported to foreign markets. Figure 2 shows the change in corn production, measured in total yield. In short, Wisconsin corn production is reaching new heights year after year and doing so with less and less land.
Corn (for grain) and soybean yields have increased dramatically over the last 35 years due to improved seed resilience, fertilizer and pesticide applications, and continuously improving farming equipment. Corn yields have gone from 102 bushels per acre in 1982 to 170 bushels per acre in 2017. Soybean yields have gone from 32 bushels per acre in 1982 to a little over 46 bushels per acre in 2017. Figure 3 illustrates the change in yields for corn and soy between 1982 and 2017.
As crop yields are expected to continue increasing and productivity of harvested land is improved, a new set of issues are presented. The depressed commodity prices of corn and soy exist today because yields have gone up considerably, leading to an oversaturated marketplace. The loss of important export markets also acts as a compounding factor upon the current commodity prices of corn and soybeans. These factors have created unfavorable conditions for conventional crop farmers in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest, and crop producers are looking far and wide for new ways to generate revenue.
Farm Land: Energy Production & Conservation
Our research turned up another unexpected fact: many farmers today are already in the energy production business. About 37% of the corn already grown in Wisconsin is used for ethanol, a common form of biofuel. Another way to look at this is that more than one million acres of farmland are allocated each year, on average, for the production of corn for biofuel.
If just 11% of that land was allocated for solar PV, rather than ethanol production, we would generate enough power to supply 50% of our state’s electricity demand exclusively from solar. Incorporating solar onto the farm is simply another form of Wisconsin-made energy that farmers can provide our state.
Not only would the footprint of land to meet 50% of our electricity needs be small relative to other uses, it is a more efficient use of land as well. One acre of corn produces enough ethanol for an E15 vehicle to travel about 11,000 miles over the course of a year. One acre of solar PV provides enough energy equivalent to power 715,000 miles worth of battery electric vehicle travel.
It is also worth keeping in mind that federal taxpayers are already paying to take cropland out of production through the U.S. Conservation Reserve Program. Today in Wisconsin, nearly 100,000 acres are not being farmed in order to preserve the land, but also to reduce the total amount of crops produced in order to manage oversupply.
Farmland preservation programs require subsidy through tax dollars paid to the federal government. In contrast, utility-scale solar projects provide very similar land preservation and conservation benefits as the Conservation Reserve Program, but do not require taxpayer dollars. In fact, they inject money into the host communities through host lease payments, the county and municipal aid distribution formula and utility aid distribution formula found under Wisconsin’s Shared Revenue Formula, and increased local spending.
So How Much Land Would Solar Use in Wisconsin?
The current circumstances of conventional crop farming in Wisconsin has created favorable conditions for a new brand of farming; solar farming. In 2017, Wisconsin electricity sales totaled about 69 million megawatt-hours. In order to offset 50% of Wisconsin’s electricity demand, about 120,000 acres of land would be used to produce electricity from utility-scale solar PV. Assuming a land footprint of seven acres per megawatt (based on Invenergy’s Badger Hollow Solar project), Wisconsin would have about 17,100 MW of utility-scale solar deployed across the state generating clean, Wisconsin-made electricity.
The land required to supply half of our state’s electricity from solar PV is approximately the same amount that is currently preserved through the Conservation Reserve Program. Alternatively, less than half a percent of Wisconsin’s total land would be required to supply half of our state’s electricity. In short, the total land footprint of solar relative to other cropping regimes, preservation programs, and land taken out of production is strikingly small.
How much land does solar use compared to coal?
The last component of our analysis looked at the physical footprint of imported coal relative to solar PV. As of 2017, Wisconsin imported nearly 22 million short tons of coal, accounting for about 50% of the state’s energy mix. While we don’t see the extraction of this coal from Wyoming coal fields, the amount of coal mined from the earth to power our state is substantial.
If we assume that we’re mining coal six feet deep, then we would have to mine about 135,000 acres of coal over a 40-year period in order to produce 50% of Wisconsin electricity from coal we are using. A solar farm is estimated to last 40 years, so we must compare 40 years of operation and coal mined in order to see the apples-to-apples comparison of land use.
Thus, although the footprint of a coal plant in Wisconsin is smaller than solar farms, those coal plants have a very similar total land impact because of how much coal has to be mined to fuel them!
While the thought experiment of replacing coal storage with solar fields is not one-to-one, this point gives particular attention to the true physical footprint of our energy consumption. Each year we send hundreds of millions of dollars out of our state to purchase and import the coal and natural gas needed to power the various coal-fired and natural gas power plants throughout Wisconsin. With Wisconsin-produced electricity from solar we are leaving carbon in the earth, keeping dollars in the state, and creating well-paying jobs.
Conclusion: Solar Farms Will Benefit Wisconsin
Wisconsin farmers have played a crucial role in providing food and energy to our communities for decades. Farmers now have a new opportunity to provide clean, renewable energy to the people of Wisconsin today and well into the future. Trends in conventional crop production have fostered ripe conditions for farmers to implement new ways to generate revenue. Crop yields are up, we are growing far more crops on less land, and commodity prices are low due to market conditions largely beyond farmers’ control.
With solar farms, we’ll be far more energy independent, and millions of dollars will be pumped into our rural communities. Solar-hosting farmers will have a new, reliable source of revenue for years to come.
Image courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists.
One of the most common questions people ask me is, “Are electric cars really better for the environment?” The resounding answer is, “Yes!”
The logic behind the question is sound; if cars run on electricity, and electricity is made with coal, then electric cars are powered by coal. And is coal really better than gasoline?
Well, yes and no. Ideally, our electricity wouldn’t be made from fossil fuels. But, even so, driving electric produces fewer emissions than driving a gasoline car.
No Matter Where you Drive, Electric Cars Produce Fewer Emissions
Union of Concerned Scientists spent years answering this question. Their scientists added up the total emissions from conventional cars and from electric cars. They found that electric cars produce half the emissions of the average gasoline car.
Their findings show that across the country electric vehicles produce the emissions-equivalent of an 80-mpg car. Even in Wisconsin, where the majority of our electricity comes from coal, electric vehicles are far cleaner than the average gasoline car even considering the emissions produced during the manufacturing of the car.
Manufacturing Emissions Paint the Wrong Picture
Producing any kind of vehicle takes an abundance of resources and energy. Since electric cars have large batteries they take even more energy to produce. In fact, the manufacturing emissions could be over 60% higher than a gas-powered car. However, as soon as the cars start to be driven the emissions decrease significantly.
Electric Cars are a Lot More Efficient
Electric cars convert more energy into forward movement than gasoline cars. Over 60% of the energy that goes into an electric car gets converted into miles traveled. A gasoline car only uses 20% of the energy from gasoline for miles traveled. This means it takes way more energy to power a gasoline engine than an electric one. So, even if both cars are using fossil fuels, the electric car will use less total energy and produce fewer emissions per mile driven.
No Local Emissions
Gasoline cars have tailpipes that emit harmful pollution. Electric cars don’t have a tailpipe, and don’t generate emissions while driving.
This has air quality implications. With a lot of cars operating in close proximity, urban areas and the areas around highways tend to have higher concentrations of air pollution. Since electric cars don’t contribute to pollution in cities and on highways, they can do a lot to help improve air quality.
Drive on Sunshine
Plus, electric cars can drive on sunshine. A gasoline car will never be able to be powered with clean, renewable energy. As more renewable energy continues to be added to the grid, electric cars will continue to get even cleaner.
If you don’t want to wait for the grid to get cleaner, consider getting solar panels for your home. Or, if you already have solar power, consider buying an electric car to drive on sunshine! Research shows that people who own solar panels are way more likely to also own an electric car.
So, while an electric car takes more energy to produce, it consumes way less energy during its life. If you care about the emissions of your vehicle, it’s time to ditch the gasmobile.
There are an abundance of other reasons to switch to driving electric, so keep in touch to find out more!
“Renewable energy is simple. It’s ancient technology. What was the first thing that came to this landscape 150 years ago? Wind mills to pump water. They were all over the place. They were needed to get water. These [wind turbines] are needed to run all of our electricity. It is the same thing, just a bigger scale.”
Tim McComish in many ways is the epitome of a Wisconsin farmer. He’s friendly, smart, and practical. His farm sits on 2000 acres in Lafayette County in the Township of Seymour, where he is also the Town Board Chairman. He has 250 dairy cows, grows crops, and now hosts a wind turbine that is part of the Quilt Block Wind Farm.
His great, great grandfather purchased the land in 1848. Now, Tim, his sons, and his brother are farming the land. They are also shepherding in the next generation of farmers, his grandkids. The McComish Family Farm is a seven generation operation.
Given the McComish history with the land and his leadership in the town, hosting the Quilt Block Wind Farm was not a decision that Tim took lightly.
“I was concerned that they [wind turbines] would be overwhelming. But I thought it was a neat thing and the economy was kind of poor then. And then meanwhile, grain prices went up and so people were not that concerned about it. Now things are back to how they were and believe me, there are farmers out here that these turbines are helping. If they have several on their property, it is making a big difference. And being on the town board, it is great what it is doing for the township.”
Tim’s support of renewable energy goes hand in hand with his stewardship to the land and his investment in energy efficiency on the farm.
“You have to do everything you can do to make the farm efficient. Most farmers are making those smart choices. With the energy rebates for the LED lights, it’s a no brainer. Everything we do around here is a cost savings.”
The McComish Farm efficiency measures even extend to water. Water is used to cool the milk initially which reduces the amount of Freon needed later. This same water exits the milking parlor through an underground tank and is reused to water the cows in the barn.
“These energy efficiency measures have all happened in the last 10 to 12 years. We doubled in herd size and our electric bill stayed the same. Just efficiencies. All these LED lights, even the vacuum pump.”
The McComish Farm no-tills just about everything, including corn and beans. This keeps all the carbon in the ground. The soil is tested so they know what the NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) is. They can knife in manure and it saves on fertilizer cost for the next year.
The McComish cows are beautiful. You can follow them in pictures on his daughter in law’s Instagram feed: cows_kids_and_cheese. The calves (mostly Holstein) are fed three times a day and when they are three months old, they are hauled to a neighboring farm where they are raised until they are about a year old, when they are brought back to breed. They calf about nine months later.
In the higher production barn the cows are all at their peak. The feed, silage, and ground corn are all mixed. The feed is tested in a lab so they are sure the cows have every nutrient they need. They grow everything except some of the protein sources they buy. They buy distillers grain which comes from ethanol plants. Everything is farm grown.
The cows have free stalls and can move and eat whenever they want. They have fresh water and sand is brought in every week because it is a forgiving bedding for the cows. In the summer, there are sprinklers to cool the cows off.
As with most farms, the manure from the cattle goes back into the field as fertilizer. There is a big lagoon that holds 2 million gallons of manure that gets pumped through a big drag line to the fields two or three miles away. “It is all environmentally friendly.”
Tim points to a dumpster overflowing with plastic.
“See that ugly dumpster? That is supposed to be emptied but because of the trouble we are having with China and the trade recycling, they are not picking up our plastic. It has been two or three months since they have taken it. That plastic has always been recycled. I am recycling nut and I want everything to be used up.“
While Tim only hosts one turbine, his property is right in the middle of the 49-turbine Quilt Block Wind Farm covering a 6 square miles radius. The turbines have become a part of his rural landscape.
“I’d say I only see the flicker half the time, and it depends where you are. Most people, if the sun is coming in that hard they’ll shut their shades and won’t see the flicker then. It is really not something to be concerned about. The planes that put fungicide on the crops just fly right around them. And as far as dead birds, I guarantee you’ll count more dead birds a mile down the road than under the turbines. It’s just a farce. Anyone who is concerned about noise, here we are carrying a conversation.”
“What’s the difference between power lines, wind turbines and grain bins and silos. I mean if you live in the city you have skyscrapers. People think they are beautiful. And guess what, I think these are beautiful. These are my skyscrapers.”