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 fewer 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. According to the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association’s website, “grain corn is used as feed for cows, pigs and poultry, as well as in the generation of ethanol, corn oil and corn starch and other non-food products.” Of all the grain corn produced in Wisconsin, about 37% of harvested grain corn goes to ethanol production.
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 2 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. It is also important to keep in mind that this analysis does not include additional land used for the transportation of 22 million short tons of coal or land dedicated to coal ash disposal. 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.
Across America, businesses are increasingly investing in clean, renewable energy. They know that the costs for wind and solar have plummeted, allowing the companies to take advantage of the low-cost electricity from renewables. In addition, customers, employees, and investors are increasingly looking to these businesses to make bigger commitments to improving their impacts on the world around us.
Over the past year, Chris Deisinger has acted as a consultant to RENEW Wisconsin to gather up all these corporate commitments to renewable energy, and do a deep dive into which of these national and multi-national firms have Wisconsin operations.
Today, we’re very excited to show you which of these national leaders have Wisconsin operations – and it’s a great list! These are companies who, over the coming years, will be searching for options to access renewable energy to cover the needs of their Wisconsin operations.
Corporations with Renewable Commitments & Wisconsin Operations
A timely example of renewable energy commitments in Wisconsin is Ashley Furniture, headquartered in Arcadia, Wisconsin. On Wednesday, Ashley announced a $29 million investment in renewable energy. The investment will be used to offset 35% of their energy use by installing solar panels at 10 of their largest facilities. Ashley expects to save at least $5 million in the first year.
Dozens of other companies in Wisconsin have also made commitments to renewable energy, including:
Utility Programs to Connect Commercial Customers with Renewable Energy
Wisconsin power companies are starting to put together programs to help companies like these, and other large customers, meet their renewable energy goals.
Two years ago, Madison Gas & Electric debuted a “Renewable Energy Rider” special service for its commercial customers, and just last month they announced they had the first two customers express interest.
Last fall, We Energies followed suit by proposing and gaining approval for a similar program that would enable their larger customers to sign up for access to dedicated renewable energy resources. We Energies was granted approval for their program in December 2018.
And, just a few weeks ago, Alliant Energy joined in, proposing a similar program again. Alliant’s program still requires approval from the Public Service Commission which oversees and regulates the utilities in Wisconsin.
A Brighter Future
Hopefully you caught Budweiser’s Super Bowl Commercial featuring their commitment to making every Budweiser with 100% wind energy. These are the types of success stories that can happen in Wisconsin too.
With dozens of corporations committing to renewable energy, and the utility programs to provide it, the future of renewables for Wisconsin is looking bright.
On Wednesday, April 10, the Richland County Zoning and Land Information Committee unanimously voted to usher in a brand new, nearly 50 megawatt solar farm!
Located two miles north of the Wisconsin River on agricultural lands owned by three local families, the Richland County Solar Farm will sit on roughly 500 acres. With a capacity of 49.9 megawatts (MW), the project is expected to produce enough electricity to offset the consumption from more than 13,000 average Wisconsin homes.
This project’s approval kicked off a momentous week for solar energy in Wisconsin when, the very next day, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin approved two additional solar farm projects totaling 450 megawatts. You can read about Badger Hollow and the Two Creeks solar farm approvals here.
Wisconsin’s current fleet of solar farms range from one to five MW in size. After the Richland County vote and the subsequent decisions at the PSC, it is clear that large-scale projects are coming to Wisconsin. Scaling up to a renewable energy economy will require investments in utility-scale wind and solar projects like the Richland County Solar Farm.
This is the first solar project of this size to be approved at the county level. Richland officials took their time to carefully review the project proposal. The developer, Savion Energy (formerly Tradewind Energy), held two community meetings in September and November in the Village of Lone Rock. The County Zoning and Land Information Committee also heard from the public at two meetings in November 2018 and the most recent meeting in April 2019.
At these meetings, residents from Richland County brought up the need for local jobs and the economic investment the farm would bring, the need for clean energy, their concerns about climate change, as well as concerns for future generations. Minutes before the final vote, local resident Bob Simpson expressed support for the project by highlighting his worries for his grandchildren and that at some point “we are going to run out of gas.” But there were other residents who expressed concern about potential issues related to glare, aesthetics and the use of agricultural land for solar.
Bearing in mind the concerns raised in the public meetings, the final conditions for the Richland County Solar Farm Conditional Use Permit project include the following developer obligations:
- Create a vegetative barrier between project lots and adjacent residences within 1000 feet of the project fence.
- Provide screening on State Route 130 (which runs through the project site) within 1000 feet of the project fence.
- Provide a detailed site plan including access and driveway permits.
- Provide a decommissioning plan and financial security for decommissioning.
Immediately after the meeting, I caught up with Marc Couey, Richland County Supervisor and member of the Zoning and Land Information Committee. I asked him about the Richland County Solar Farm and he said, “We are going to run out of power without using alternative energies. It’s the right thing to do.” I couldn’t agree more!
Today at its Open Meeting, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission approved five interrelated cases that will lead to a five-fold expansion of solar energy in Wisconsin.
The PSC approved:
- The Badger Hollow Solar Farm project in Iowa County, totaling 300 megawatts. Badger Hollow could become the largest solar electric plant in the Midwest when completed. In addition, the PSC approved a “tie line” that will deliver Badger Hollow’s output to a nearby substation, where it will be injected into the existing southwest Wisconsin grid.
- The Two Creeks Solar Project in Manitowoc County, totaling 150 megawatts. As with Badger Hollow, the PSC also approved a “tie line” that will deliver Two Creeks’ output to a nearby substation.
- Finally, the PSC approved an application from two Wisconsin utilities, Wisconsin Public Service based in Green Bay and Madison Gas & Electric, to acquire a total of 300 megawatts of this new solar capacity. The utilities will acquire the entire Two Creeks Solar Farm and a 150 MW share of the Badger Hollow Solar Farm. Wisconsin Public Service will acquire a total of 200 MW and Madison Gas & Electric will acquire 100 MW.
By RENEW Wisconsin’s estimates, the state of Wisconsin closed 2018 with about 103 megawatts of solar power, about 80% of that residing on homes and buildings, directly serving the customers who bought the solar arrays.
When completed, the 450 megawatts of solar would produce about 1.3% of Wisconsin’s annual electricity consumption, and supply electricity equivalent to the usage of about 116,500 Wisconsin homes. Both projects should be operational by mid-2021.
RENEW Wisconsin’s Executive Director, Tyler Huebner, said, “We are very happy to see the Public Service Commission approve these solar projects and find that it is cost-effective for two of our major utilities to own and operate these plants. It is a landmark day for solar energy in Wisconsin. Solar energy is a smart choice to meet the electricity needs of our citizens, businesses, and organizations, and without a state mandate to do so. With solar energy, we will produce homegrown, healthy energy right here in Wisconsin for years to come, and provide substantial economic benefits to the landowners and local governments who will host these projects.”
Today’s approvals build momentum for large-scale solar as a resource for power suppliers and utilities in Wisconsin.
- Three weeks ago, Dairyland Power Cooperative announced a commitment to purchase electricity from a 149 megawatt solar facility called Badger State Solar that would be located in Jefferson County. That project is subject to PSC approval as well.
- Just yesterday, April 10, the Richland County Board of Zoning gave final, and unanimous, approval to the 49.9 megawatt Richland County Solar Project developed by Savion Energy to be located in the Town of Buena Vista.
- In 2017, WPPI Energy announced it would purchase power from a 100 megawatt solar project near the Point Beach Nuclear Station. That project also will seek PSC approval in 2019.
Taken together, these five new solar projects account for approximately 749 megawatts of new solar power. If all are approved and built, they would supply 2.1% of Wisconsin’s annual electricity needs, and produce enough power to equal the annual usage of about 185,000 homes in Wisconsin. Beyond these projects, at least 4,000 megawatts of additional large-scale solar projects are being explored and developed in Wisconsin. We encourage you to learn more about large-scale solar energy, including our long list of questions and answers, at www.renewwisconsin.org/solarfarms.
About RENEW Wisconsin
RENEW Wisconsin is a nonprofit organization which promotes renewable energy in Wisconsin. We work on policies and programs that support solar power, wind power, biogas, local hydropower, geothermal energy, and electric vehicles in Wisconsin. More information is available on RENEW’s website: www.renewwisconsin.org.
Today at their headquarters in La Crosse, Dairyland Power Cooperative announced that it will be purchasing electricity from a major new Wisconsin-based solar energy facility being developed by Ranger Power.
The partnership involves a 149 megawatt solar power facility called Badger State Solar which is planned to be located in Jefferson County, Wisconsin. Ranger Power is planning to develop, own, and operate the project. Dairyland Power Cooperative will purchase all the electricity generated from the project through a long-term power purchase agreement.
The project will produce enough electricity to provide the equivalent annual needs of about 20,000 homes. If all approvals are granted from local and state permitting processes, construction would begin in 2020 and operation would commence in 2022.
RENEW Wisconsin’s Executive Director Tyler Huebner said, “Today’s announcement shows that solar power has become a cost-effective resource for Wisconsin’s major power providers such as Dairyland Power. By committing to this solar project which will be built right here in Wisconsin, Dairyland will meet its goals of a safe, reliable, affordable, and increasingly sustainable and diversified energy supply. We congratulate Dairyland Power Cooperative and Ranger Power on this historic announcement!”
By RENEW Wisconsin’s count, the state had about 103 megawatts of solar at year-end 2018, with Dairyland Power Cooperative responsible for about 20 megawatts, already placing it as the leader in the state for the amount of solar installed to-date. This project, along with a number of additional major solar projects, will dramatically increase the amount of solar energy produced in Wisconsin in the next five years.
More information about the project is included in the links below.
Dairyland Power Press Release
Badger State Solar Project Fact Sheet
Badger State Solar Project Economic Impact
Featured in image: Dairyland Power President and CEO Barb Nick and Ranger Power CEO Paul Harris