- Andy Johnson is a farmer and executive director of Clean Energy Districts of Iowa.
- Warren McKenna is former manager of Farmers Electric Cooperative and a current solar consultant.
The debate over large-scale solar energy in Iowa has reached the Capitol. A bill recently passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senate File 2127, would effectively outlaw solar panels on the vast majority of Iowa farmland.
Solar energy represents investment, jobs, grid stability, energy independence, tax base, agricultural diversification, emissions reductions, and so much more.
The opportunity cost of freezing large-scale solar throughout rural Iowa is huge. With favorable conditions, we could easily see 10 gigawatts of solar in coming years (that’s roughly the current amount of wind energy in Iowa), and potentially much more over time.
Back-of-the-napkin calculations for 10 gigawatts of solar, based on research conducted for previous solar projects, suggest over $10 billion of initial investment, over 50,000 jobs, and $30 billion to $40 billion over 25 years in returns to utilities, landowners, and state and local governments. It would power well over a million homes and, with the addition of storage, would strengthen large sections of Iowa’s grid against climate and cyber disasters.
Yet, the voices of big fossil fuel money and a vocal minority of rural residents threatens to abort a generation of clean energy prosperity in rural Iowa before it even sees the light of day.
What’s going on? The arguments against solar fall into at least three buckets: 1) we shouldn’t put thousands of acres of good Iowa farmland under solar panels; 2) large-scale solar could be a negative for land values and conservation issues like runoff; 3) renewable energy and electric vehicles threaten Iowa’s ethanol (and so corn farming) industry — a false but oft-repeated belief.
Let’s take the farmland issue first. Iowa has 27 million acres of cropland. About 13 million acres are in corn every year, and about 8 million of those are dedicated primarily to ethanol production.
Large-scale solar would simply replace a tiny portion of these 8 million acres currently used to farm the sun for energy, with an alternative crop of solar panels used to farm the sun for energy. In fact, it would take just 1% of those ethanol corn acres (or a third of a percent of total Iowa cropland), to install as much solar capacity as the state currently has in wind capacity.
Shouldn’t Iowa landowners have the freedom to choose what form of energy production works best on their land?
Senate File 2127 limits solar panels to agricultural land with a corn suitability rating, or CSR, of 65 or lower, theoretically to preserve highly productive farmland. Yet solar panel farming provides higher returns to rural landowners and to state and local governments, and produces 10 times the vehicle miles per acre as corn farming (and no, that’s not a criticism of ethanol).
Iowa’s Solar Suitability Rating is high on all lands and throughout the entire state.
The Linn County Clean Energy District has addressed the land value and conservation issues head-on. Through three tours with local stakeholders of large scale solar both inside and outside Iowa, they’ve shown that land values are largely unaffected, and neighbors of existing solar farms have few if any complaints (certainly no more than they might with other kinds of farming).
They also found the conservation values of solar to be very high. Many large solar farms nowadays (including the two proposed in Linn) incorporate native grasses and pollinators as the ground cover, with significant habitat benefits. Any perennial ground cover will also dramatically reduce soil erosion and runoff compared to annually tilled cropland, thus reducing flooding and water quality impacts.
The anti-electric-vehicle rhetoric is perhaps the most damaging … not just to the rural solar prosperity opportunity, but to the entire future of Iowa agriculture.
Today, technology and market forces are driving the electrification of transportation, nationally and globally. Despite the rhetoric from the fossil fuel industry and some political leaders, environmental policy is playing a relatively peripheral role.
But the change is happening, and the EV train has left the station. Every farmer knows Iowa’s corn, beans, and ethanol production are fully integrated into national and global markets. If those markets are changing, we’d be wise to prepare, to innovate, to adapt.
Burying our heads in Iowa loam, and circling the wagons in corn protectionism, risks Iowa agriculture becoming a state of coal farmers: fooled into embracing a future that profits corporate and political elites in the near term and leaves local hardworking people and communities out to dry when the big changes come.
Instead, we could embrace change, innovate, and adapt. Diversify our rural landscapes with investments in solar power, and battery and hydrogen storage. Innovate new biofuel markets such as airline fuel, and manufacture fertilizer from home-grown renewable power. Lead the charge for greater conservation commodity programs in the next farm bill, so our farmers aren’t locked into traditional grain commodity production to qualify for the safety net.
Iowa’s rural future is bright … if we’re open and committed to building it.
Andy Johnson is a farmer and executive director of Clean Energy Districts of Iowa. Warren McKenna is former manager of Farmers Electric Cooperative and a current solar consultant.