Shifting Subsidies From Corn Ethanol to Solar

Evan Chakrin: Horticulture

Ryan White: Animal science

Tim Miragliuolo: Building and Construction Tech.



A sun tracking solar panel in a corn field. (



Nobody likes wasteful government spending on programs that don’t benefit consumers or the environment, but that is exactly what’s happened with decades of corn ethanol subsidies. The American taxpayer is forced to underwrite the production of an inefficient energy source, and forced again to buy its product when used in gasoline mixtures at fuel stations across the country. Gasoline-ethanol mixes cost consumers miles per gallon and clog the fuel systems of seasonal use equipment and recreational vehicles (Regalbuto, 2009; Patzek et al., 2005) and do little to help the environment (Vedenov & Wetzstein, 2008). After having cost US taxpayers over 40 billion dollars from 1978-2012 (Melchior, 2016), federal tax code supports over 26 billion in subsidies for corn ethanol through 2024 (“Federal subsidies”, 2015). It is time to shift federal incentives toward truly renewable energy systems, and solar photovoltaic [PV] technology provides an excellent answer to our future energy needs. Due to the relative land usage, flexibility of installation, and greenhouse gas emission efficiency of PV systems, we believe that all future corn ethanol tax incentives should be redirected toward the installation of photovoltaic solar panel systems either in isolated systems or through collocation with viable biofuels and vegetable crops.


Compared to the corn ethanol fuel cycle, the solar PV energy cycle is relatively simple. It’s true that they require manufacturing and installation, but the energy required in their manufacture is easily offset by their use in 1-2 years (Mariska de Wild-Scholten, 2013). When a photon, or unit of light energy, hits a solar cell it knocks lose an electron from one of the atoms within the cell. If wires are attached to the positive and negative sides of the solar cell, they create an electrical circuit for the electrons to flow along. The solar cells create electricity directly, and send it along their circuits to be used locally, or added back to the electric grid to be used somewhere else. (DeBono, 2017) When electricity is added back into the grid for public use, the owner of the PV system is selling this power to the electrical company. When being used in fields previously occupied by corn grown for ethanol use, the farmers will be able to power all of their own equipment and facilities from the PV system and still have enough excess power to sell for profit.


What is corn ethanol and how is it used? First corn that could be used for human or animal consumption is grown by relying on the use of industrial fertilizers  (Crutzen, Mosier, Smith, & Winiwarter, 2016), liberal use of groundwater reserves (Dominguez-Faus, Powers, Burken, & Alvarez, 2009; Patzek et al., 2005) and chemical pesticides (Hill, Nelson, Tilman, Polasky, & Tiffany, 2006). The corn kernels are then ground into a powder and more water is added along with enzymes that ferment the starches, which is then heated using more energy to further break down the starches. Then, a second enzyme is added to reduce the starches to sugars, before yeast is added to finally turn the sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide. The product is then heated again to evaporate the ethanol for collection and further dehydration to create the final product, anhydrous ethanol ready for blending with gasoline. (“Ethanol: What is it?”, 2009; Mosier & Lleleji, 2006)

Due to the energy needed for production and processing, North American corn ethanol may not offer a net an energy gain (Gagnon, Belanger, & Uchiyama, 2002; Murphy, Woods, Black, & McManus, 2011). From the requirements of tractors, fertilizers, and pesticides used, and that of their manufacture, to the energy needed for fermentation and distillation, some sources claim that corn ethanol may require much more energy to produce than it creates. (Pimentel, 1991; Murphy, Hall, & Powers, 2010) Corn ethanol is also less efficient to refine than petroleum, and offers a net carbon increase in its usage when compared to petroleum fuel sources due to refining and land degradation due to its production. (Fargione, Hill, Tilman, Polasky, & Hawthorne, 2008) The nitrous oxide emissions resulting from biofuel production offset any positive effect their use may have in reducing greenhouse gases. (Crutzen et al., 2016) Corn requires heavy nitrogen applications that can lead to nitrogen leaching which can contaminate the already limited water supplies. The processes involved with farming corn (intensive tillage of the soil) leads to soil erosion which degrades the quality of crop grown each year. (Vadas, P.A., et al. 2008)

The Net Energy Balance from the corn is about 25%, this is due to the corn also being used for a secondary product, animal feed. (Hill et al. 2006) This is a lot of wasted energy that translates into money. Imagine you run 5 miles just to get to your car to then only drive 1 mile. Energy is wasted getting to the goal when the PV systems act like a car the entire 6 miles. Putting these subsidies towards the installation of PV systems, either by themselves or alongside current biofuels or vegetable crops can be beneficial for the environment as well as the consumer, costing less money to install and maintain than other energy sources.   


After costs of manufacturing, installation and maintenance are considered, advanced PV technologies have an economic payback threshold of between 0.75 and 3.5 years (Peng, Lu, & Yang, 2013, p. 271). After this, the PV systems pay for themselves and take little time for maintenance when compared to managing fields for corn production. After energy used during the manufacturing, transportation, installation and maintenance are considered, over their lifetime PV systems have a greenhouse-gas emission rate of between 23-50 grams of CO2-eq./kWh (Peng, et al., 2013, p. 271). This compares favorably with corn ethanol systems, which produce between 58-179 grams of CO2-eq./kWh (Dressler, Loewen, & Nelles, 2012).


Due to climate change, the area available for efficient field crop production may decrease by the end of the 21st century. (Zhang & Cai, 2011) With a growing population and limited space, being as land efficient as possible is key to keep our society functioning comfortably.  Compared to corn ethanol energy, field installed PV systems are between 15 times (Trainor, McDonald, & Fargione, 2016) and 28 times as efficient at producing energy on an average square meter of land (Cheng & Hammond, 2014), including the manufacturing, assembly, and maintenance of the systems. PV systems do not necessarily reuquire direct land usage due to the ability to be installed on roof tops or over parking lots. (Denholm & Margolis, 2008).

When growing corn ethanol, it is often suggested to only use land that is marginally productive or on land that is idle or abandoned. (Fargione JE et al., 2010) Because of this, farmers that change biofuel crop fields over to PV systems will not be permanently losing a farmable field that might be used for other crops in the future.  If farmers do not currently have fields that they are using for corn ethanol production, or if they have never produced corn ethanol, a field dedicated to a PV system can be reverted back to its original farmable state to continue to grow crops after decommissioning the PV system. (Dijkman TJ, Benders RMJ., no year)

The ability of PV systems to be placed anywhere is a big argument for solar as it is one of the only energy sources able to do this. There are several researchers investigating land use efficiency modifiers such as PV systems installed alongside traditional agricultural systems. Some involve the combination of PV arrays in arid regions with biofuel or other non-food crops (Ravi, Field, & Lobell, 2014; Ravi et al., 2016). This can create usable space out of land that was previously barren and can keep habitable land free from industrial use.

Other research investigates the collocation of PV systems with vegetable crops (Dupraz et al., 2011). Due to the relatively lower photosynthetic efficiency of plants compared to modern PV systems, their collocation with vegetable crops in arable lands may increase the overall economic productivity of land usage by 35% – 73% (Dupraz et al., 2011). The angle of the PV system can also act as a way to water the crops, as the rain runs off the panels and into the soil, not only to clean the panel of any dirt or debris but to also tend to the gardens and fields.


The conversion of farm fields to solar farms can be more profitable for farmers. In a case study from North Carolina, the state found that it could supply it’s peak summer energy need of about 30 gigawatts by converting the states 232,000 acres of tobacco fields into solar fields, and do so at a net profit to tobacco farmers that gains each year as electricity rates go up and the cost of installation goes down. (Krishnan & Pearce, 2018). Depending on the rate of electricity increase and the cost of solar installation, farmers in the year 2030 could profit between 3,000$/acre/year to 50,000$/acre/year (Krishnan & Pearce, 2018) This range is due to the complexity of factors involved and represent the far ends of their calculations: 109 kilowatts per acre, installed at 2$/watt, charging 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, with rates increasing by 5.7% yearly for the lowest profit, and 126 kilowatts per acre, installed at 0.8$/watt, charging 20 cents per kilowatt-hour, and increasing by 5.7% yearly for the highest profit. Projected profits of most factor combinations nearly double again by 2040. Not only would this be profitable for the farmers, but solar will provide energy that is sustainable and not harmful to the environment. While the initial cost of these PV systems are expensive, about $10 million, the long term profits will not only help the families of the farm, but can help save lives throughout the country as less people will be affected by the greenhouse gasses the farming of tobacco can cause as well as have less people use the product and harm their own bodies.

Corn ethanol also wastes space that could be better utilized to grow food crops, causes more soil erosion than any other crop, and increase the cost of feed for livestock, costing consumers an additional $1 billion each year. (Pimentel, 2003) The counter argument to this is that PV systems also take up too much land; however, this is not the case.  Although they do take up a lot of land, if we were to cover all the land currently in use for producing corn ethanol with PV systems, we would be able to produce 433% of the United States total electricity requirements. If we were to aim for only 30% of the United States total electricity requirements, it would only take up 0.08% of the land in the United States. (Silber, 2016)  For perspective, this is less space than if you laid every parking lot in the country side by side. (Silber, 2016) This just shows that although solar takes up a lot of land, it is much more efficient than corn ethanol production.


This is perhaps the most important variable when considering a change from corn to solar. Many farmers like what they do and want to continue in their current ways.  In order to get farmers on board for trying something unknown to them there has to be an incentive in the form of profit for them. Income from a solar farm on their land can be significantly higher than if that same land was used for agriculture, no matter what the crop is.  Most solar contracts are signed for somewhere between 15 and 20 years. Most solar companies would be willing to pay between 800 and 1000 dollars (sometimes higher) per acre per year, for the duration of the contract. Much of this farm land is valued at around $3000. (Carroll, 2017) In Michigan, where the market price for an acre of farmland is around $1000, many farmers are leasing their land to solar companies for up to $2000 per acre per year.  (Bao, 2018) This would be a much larger profit for the farmer than if he was using this same land for crops, or even if the solar company was to buy that same land from the farmer. This program of leasing the land from the farmer creates an opportunity for huge profit for the farmer and the community, while also allowing the farmer to continue farming on their land. Many have adopted PV systems as they have already recognized the profits they can make using the land for the renewable source. Dawson Singletary, a 65 year old farmer, has gone on to say that there is no crop that can generate the same income than what they get out of the solar farms (Ryan, 2016).


Changing the flow of government subsidies from biofuels to PV systems, farmers will have the ability to continue to support their families and provide a reliable and sustainable form of energy. While the initial costs of these systems may appear to be a burden towards the farmers, the long term benefits will greatly improve lifestyles. The reduction of biofuel productions and replacement to the land efficient systems will reduce the emissions of CO2 into the environment while giving people access to energy. Not only will the PV systems provide energy, they can collocate with other forms of agriculture and become an instrument in the care of the plants and crops with runoff from rain. PV systems prove to be an investment that can lead farms to produce for the community as well as providing greater profits than previous uses of the land.








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  1. I couldn’t agree more, this article raise such a good question! I’m a big supporter of renewable energy and I think it’s time for the government to put time and resources into finding ways how we can optimize solar energy. Using solar power to support farming is such a great idea and should be the next step.

  2. I absolutely love the idea of using solar energy with farming. I really wish more steps would be take. With urgency. We need to keep our world safe and clean and this technology is exactly what we need more of. Thanks for sharing!

  3. this article is so nice and very informative. this inform about shifting subsides from corn ethanol to solar. this is a kind of energy transformation.. solar energy is one of the best kind of energy that should be used, because it costs very low and it is also Eco friendly. after all thanks for sharing this kind of informative articles..

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