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Solar vs. Ethanol: Rethinking Wisconsin’s Land Use for Energy

In Wisconsin, a significant portion of the state’s farmland—amounting to a million acres—is dedicated to energy production through corn cultivation for ethanol, with a quarter of all Wisconsin-grown corn and 45% nationwide being transformed into ethanol.

When it comes to using land for energy, Wisconsin’s million acres of ethanol corn dwarf the 3,500 currently set aside for solar. A new detailed analysis from Clean Wisconsin shows that acre for acre, solar farms provide significantly more vehicle driving miles than ethanol from corn. 

Clean Wisconsin science program director Paul Mathewson, along with his team, looked into how land is being used in Wisconsin to produce energy. “Whenever you’re trying to compare dissimilar things, there’s no perfect comparison. What’s the most similar thing that we can compare with photovoltaic solar energy to ethanol production? And that is vehicle miles powered, because you can use solar panels to power electric vehicles, and then ethanol is mixed in with gasoline to fuel internal combustion engines,” said Mathewson to Clean Wisconsin Podcast.

According to Mathewson and his team, the efficiency of land use for energy drastically favors solar over ethanol, with solar energy being capable of powering vehicles for 60 to over 200 times more miles on the same land area. This disparity is largely because electric vehicles are far more efficient than those with internal combustion engines. Moreover, even if ethanol were converted into electricity for electric vehicles, solar would still yield at least 30 times more powered miles than ethanol.

The benefits to revenue for communities is even greater with solar energy production. The calculation involves comparing the amount of money that goes into ethanol production vs. how much is profited after. In the case of corn for ethanol, this includes the energy used for creating fertilizer, planting, harvesting, and producing ethanol. Therefore, when assessing the net energy benefits of ethanol, it’s essential to consider the total energy derived from the ethanol and then deduct the energy expended in its production.

“80% of that energy that you’re producing with ethanol is offset by energy inputs [like fertilizer]. So basically you’re only getting a net benefit of 20% of that energy going to society because of all the inputs that go into it. Whereas with solar… 88% of the energy is a net energy gain [because the primary input is the susn],” said Mathewson to Clean Wisconsin Podcast.

Benefits to the consumer and community aside, the next question is: wouldn’t corn and solar together be better for the country’s farmland? It might seem counterintuitive since corn is perceived as natural, whereas solar panels are seen as artificial. However, solar farms can indeed be beneficial for the land, primarily due to advantages like improved water quality. This benefit hinges on effective vegetation management within the solar facility. Mathewson shares that continuous support for these facilities emphasizes the critical examination of their vegetation management plans, ensuring they are as comprehensive and effective as possible to secure these environmental benefits. 

Mathewson encourages community members to make their voices heard at proposed solar farm sites. There are often open houses held for community members to voice their opinions and concerns for the development. Now, proposals typically include comprehensive plans for quickly establishing a permanent grass layer. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to voice the desire for these projects to be as environmentally friendly as possible, emphasizing the importance of creating habitats for pollinators.