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Are Solar Farms Going To Put Ethanol Out of Its Misery?


It’s no secret ethanol is a political child – whose sales are propped up by laws requiring ethanol be blended with gasoline. Similar to gasoline, ethanol prices have taken a plunge over the past year. Many folks try to avoid gas with ethanol arguing that it is an underperformer.

The agricultural footprint of ethanol has raised objections by none other than Jose Graziano da Silva – head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). His position is simple – ethanol makes food more expensive and uses farmland that should be used to alleviate global hunger.

Case in point is the U.S. Ethanol industry’s gigantic agricultural footprint.

  1. It takes 1 bushel of corn (56 lbs.) to make 2.8 gallons of ethanol.
  2. Corn yields in the U.S. are around 150 bushels per acre – or 420 gallons of ethanol.
  3. In 2014, the U.S. ethanol industry produced 14.34 billion gallons of ethanol, requiring approximately 34 million acres of corn – 10 percent of U.S. cropland.

Agricultural research from the University of Illinois reveals that corn needs about 24 inches of rain per year to produce a crop of corn. Two feet of water per acre is equivalent to 650,000 gallons of water to get 150 bushels of corn. That translated into over 1,500 gallons of water to produce the corn needed for one gallon of ethanol.

In the world today, 62 countries do not have enough farmland to raise food for domestic requirements. Another 22 countries don’t have the water needed to meet domestic food needs. In a recent 2015 research report by the World Resources Institute, estimates are that by 2050, the world will need 70 percent more food and forest products. While photosynthesis is efficient at producing food, solar PV can produce 200 to 300 times as much usable energy per acre compared to bioenergy farming. (See the uploaded video on ethanol).

Emerging from obscurity, utility-scale solar farms are on a steep trajectory up. Utility scale does not include residential roof-top solar, but include large solar farms from which utilities buy power (see Info graphic #1). Related to solar power is the increasing electrification of cars which is precipitating another trend to charge cars from home solar. Present day transportation trends are evolving away from fossil fuels and their ethanol side-kicks. Info graphic #2 reflects the growing sales of electric and plug-in cars in the U.S.

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