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Solar Panels Reduce CO2 Emissions More Per Acre Than Trees — and Much More Than Corn Ethanol

The story below was originally published on the Climate Law Blog from Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. 

On September 21, the New York Times published an essay by Gabriel Popkin titled “Are There Better Places to Put Large Solar Farms Than These Forests?” Popkin describes a recently approved 4,500-acre solar project in Virginia that will remove approximately 3,500 acres of forest and asks whether such projects could be sited instead on rooftops, parking lots, and other degraded land. This blog post provides some additional information and context to Popkin’s essay.

First, only a very small percentage of solar projects in the United States are currently being sited on forested lands. While Popkin correctly notes that approximately 50% of solar energy facilities, as measured by land area, are sited in deserts, the assertion that “more than four-fifths of the rest go on farmland, forestland or grasslands” requires additional context. Specifically, it is important to understand that solar is not being sited in equal quantities on these three types of land, as farmland hosts far more solar projects (33%) than either grassland (6%) or forests (4%). For comparison, nearly 3% of solar power is currently sited in urban areas.

Second, while Popkin correctly notes that forests, like solar farms, offer climate-change benefits, the essay does not provide any information on the relative emissions benefits of forested land versus solar farms. To be clear, forests offer immense benefits that have nothing to do with carbon sequestration, including by serving as critical habitat for native flora and fauna, filtering drinking water, preventing erosion, and providing scenic and recreational benefits to millions of people. However, on the narrow but important issue of carbon dioxide emissions, an acre of solar panels appears to offset more emissions each year than an acre planted with trees can sequester.

In the United States, the emissions intensity of electricity produced by natural gas-fired power plants is about 1,071 pounds per megawatt-hour (MWh) on a lifecycle basis, whereas the emissions intensity of solar PV is about 95 pounds per MWh, a difference of 976 pounds per MWh. According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, utility-scale solar power produces between 394 and 447 MWh per acre per year. Thus, when solar panels are installed to replace natural gas, an acre of solar panels saves approximately 385,000 to 436,000 pounds, or 175 to 198 metric tons, of carbon dioxide per year. By comparison, according to the EPA, the average acre of forest in the United States sequesters 0.84 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Thus, an acre of solar panels installed to replace natural gas reduces approximately 208 to 236 times more carbon dioxide per year than an acre of forest.

What about the carbon that is released when an acre of forest is removed? According to the EPA, the average acre of forest contains 81 metric tons of carbon, although the exact figure depends heavily on the species of trees in the forest. Approximately half of that amount is sequestered in the soil. Even if all 81 metric tons of carbon, comprising 297 metric tons of carbon dioxide, were released upon conversion to a solar farm, those emissions would be offset within 2 years of operation.

Third, Popkin suggests that siting solar projects on farmland may interfere with an “obvious an important use: growing food.” However, solar projects can coexist with and complement agriculture, including by improving pollinator habitat and allowing animals to graze between rows of panels. The Great Plains Institute has found, for example, that “utility-scale solar can be compatible with other forms of non-cultivated agriculture like pasture and grasslands.” In addition, recent research has shown that growing crops, such as tomatoes, in between rows of solar panels in hot, dry climates may increase yields by creating shade, which conserves water, increases humidity, and lowers temperatures. Likewise, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has determined that “the placement of structures for commercial solar energy generation … is consistent with farming operations,” provided that certain measures are taken to maintain the integrity of agricultural land at the site, including by planting pollinator habitat and conservation cover. In addition, the income that farmers can earn by leasing out parts of their land for renewable energy projects allows them to keep the rest of their land in production while insulating them against low harvest years.

Moreover, any discussion of a purported conflict between agriculture and energy production must also acknowledge that more than one-third of all corn grown in the United States is used not for food—or even to feed livestock—but for energy. In total, more than 30 million acres of farmland, covering an area roughly the size of Louisiana, are effectively used to grow corn for ethanol. While the process of refining corn into ethanol generates other feedstocks, including some that are used for animal feed, it is clear that this land is not being maximized for food production.

Importantly, converting the land currently used for growing corn ethanol to solar energy would greatly increase the amount of energy produced on that land. Indeed, an analysis from PV Magazine recently found that converting the land currently used for corn ethanol to solar power could meet all of the nation’s electricity needs. Likewise, a UK-based analysis from Carbon Brief found that “a hectare of solar panels delivers between 48 and 112 times more driving distance, when used to charge an electric vehicle, than that land could deliver if used to grow biofuels for cars.”

Based on my own calculations (below), an acre of solar panels produces roughly 40 times more energy than an acre devoted to growing corn for ethanol—and this is without taking into account the fact that electric vehicles use energy more efficiently than gas-powered cars:

  • As noted above, solar power produces between 394 and 447 megawatt hours (MWh) per acre per year.
  • According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, one acre of corn produces approximately 462 gallons of ethanol.[2]
  • With a heat content of 76,300 BTU per gallon of ethanol, 462 gallons of ethanol contains 35,250,600 BTU.
  • Applying a standard conversion factor of 3,412,000 BTU per MWh, one acre of corn produces a quantity of ethanol equivalent to 10.3 MWh.
  • Thus, an acre of solar panels produces roughly 38 to 43 times more energy per acre than corn ethanol, even assuming a relatively high output per acre of corn.

Fourth, as Popkin correctly acknowledges, rooftops and parking lots are “generally more expensive to develop than forest or farmland.” However, Popkin does not explain how much more expensive it is to build solar on rooftops or parking lots. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the average cost per watt of installing rooftop solar projects is approximately 1.75-3 times as expensive as utility-scale solar. The average cost per watt of a utility-scale solar system is $0.89, compared to $1.56 for a commercial rooftop project and $2.65 for a residential rooftop project.

Comparison of installation costs of residential solar, commercial rooftop solar, and utility-scale solar.
Comparison of installation costs of residential solar, commercial rooftop solar, and utility-scale solar. Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Constructing solar canopies over parking lots also appears to be more expensive than utility-scale solar. The industry publication PV Magazine has used $3 per watt as a back-of-the-envelope figure, while Energy Sage has estimated, based on data from its solar energy marketplace, that the average installation cost is $3.31 per watt. To provide one real-world example, the 12.3-megawatt solar canopy under construction at JFK International Airport will cost $56 million, or $4.55 per watt. While the construction costs of solar canopies may be offset in some cases by charging a premium for the shaded parking spots underneath, it will be more challenging to recoup such costs in places where parking is free. And these are just the installation costs; it is also more expensive to maintain small, widely dispersed units than one large system.

Comparison of operations and maintenance costs of residential, commercial, and utility-scale solar.
Comparison of operations and maintenance costs of residential, commercial, and utility-scale solar. Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory 

Ultimately, achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by the early 2050s to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will require siting an unprecedented number of renewable energy facilities in a very short time. At this time, siting solar projects on forested land remains relatively rare; in the rare instances when solar is sited on forested land, those projects appear to offset more emissions on a per-acre basis than trees can sequester; the 30 million acres of farmland that are currently being used to produce corn ethanol could produce much more energy as solar farms without harming food production; and utility-scale solar projects remain significantly cheaper to install and maintain than rooftop and parking lot solar projects.

*Updated on December 19, 2023, to reflect that the lifecycle emissions of solar PV are approximately 95 pounds per MWh and to clarify that ethanol co-products include animal feed.

Matthew Eisenson works on the Renewable Energy Legal Defense Initiative at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law

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1 year ago

One aspect I did not see treated is that residential installations do not have to provide a profit to stockholders and executives.
There can also be synergy when residential solar panels make EV charging seemingly free, and also encourages installation of heat pumps to eliminate fossil heating, without worrying about future increases they might see in the cost of electricity bought off the grid.

1 year ago

Production and utilisation of solar panels are two major polutants. What is the benefit of making solar pannels? Polute more? Why don’t use clean nuclear energy? Why sudenly we stoped talking about energy from fusion reaction?

Reply to  Aurimas
1 year ago

Absolutely false claim here. Although the production of solar panels does produce some minimal emissions, just like everything that is made by man, but the pollutants are 2 orders of magnitude less than producing electricity from coal or natural gas. And there are zero emissions during operation. Not to mention over 95% of a panel is glass and aluminum which can be recycled.

The emissions from wind and solar manufacturing is not even close to the continuous emissions from fossil fuels. Nuclear energy is a good option too, but there are waste issues there too. Although construction, O&M of nuclear facilities is also much much less than fossil fuels.

1 year ago

Thanks for the article. This is very appropriate timing as there is a strong debate about loss of agricultural farmland to offset methane emissions and the fear that land will be lost to forestry, but less land could be used for the same effect and it would not affect the water table. In fact it could still be used for farming at lower density as has been done in some countries.

1 year ago

A well written article, thanks. The way the heading of this article is written captivated me, which is what it was designed to do I’m sure. But this could be both good and bad:

An interesting aspect: to focus specifically on CO2 emission reductions per acre, comparing trees with solar panels. I can see the obvious need to focus on CO2 sequestration and abatement, but not at the expense of a balanced eco-system – this is the risk of hyper focusing.

Im sure the intentions of the author here were not devious, but it must be said that some might try use articles like this to justify clearing away forest lands to lay down solar panels. This would be an absolute tragedy as we desperately need both trees (forests) and solar panels. I ask myself, was there really no other place to lay down solar panels, besides land presently occupied by perfectly good mature forest, busy absorbing CO2?

“But its cost-effective” one might say. Are we not creating other eco-system imbalances for ourselves later on? Right now its CO2e, but later on? Pennywise but pound-foolish?

But luckily its only a small percentage of land where this might happen, I get that. I just hope it stays that way, and hope that every effort is made to consider all alternative spaces for solar panels before resorting to perfectly good forest land.

And what about when we achieve net-zero energy production, then the concept in the heading would no longer be true, right?

11 months ago

This article ignores the embedded carbon in the panels themselves before they produce their first kwh of “green” electricity.

How green are solar panels? 70% of solar panels are manufactured in China. They shear the top off a mountain to collect silicon, silver, glass, etc. using diesel powered trucks. Then they ship those materials to a factory where they are refined using coal energy, a very energy intensive process. Then they ship them again on trucks powered by diesel to an assembly plant. They they put them on a boat powered by diesel and ship them across the pacific ocean. Then the panels are loaded and driven across country to Virginia on diesel powered trucks. Then we cut down the trees using gas powered chainsaws, then we install the panels where the C02 filters we used to call trees used to stand.

All of that carbon used to create the panel and put it into service is ignored in the math.

When an oil company considers whether to drill a new well, they look at the cost of extracting the oil vs. the value of the oil coming out. We need to do the same when we look at how “green” solar panels actually are. They are made using carbon intensive processes, you simply can’t ignore all that carbon to make them when you compare them to carbon reduced by trees they are replacing.

Dr. O
Dr. O
Reply to  JEFF E OWEN
6 months ago

The article does not ignore the manufacturing and shipping of PV. The NREL source referenced on life cycle emissions intensity [lb/MWh] includes upstream factors. It is in the math.

Sepp Seitz
Sepp Seitz
Reply to  Dr. O
3 months ago

The issue with solar panels is not if individual components are recyclable, it is that there is no industry to do the recycling especially of the rare earth elements ( Given the 1000 acre+ hail devastation of a very large solar installation the occurred recently in Fort Bend County , Tx, where do you think that panel trash is going to go? Another concern are the lithium battery storage batteries that accompany these utility scale projects. When they catch fire, they burn and pollute (Chaumont, NY). While an acre for acre comparison has its academic merit, the larger view presents different consideration. End of life mitigation is another thorny issue given the fact that there has been so little decommissioning of these installations. It would be safe to speculate these lands will not return to be forest of field.

Stewart Farrar
Stewart Farrar
6 months ago

Is there another publication that compares current costs for solar projects that take into consideration the federal and state programs that have recently been introduced in the US to subsidize solar energy? I realize that these don’t change the relative energy produced, but would make all kinds of solar projects more competitive with fossil fuels and corn that are subsidized.