Randy DeBaillie pointed to the power meter on his snow-covered farm: Even on a foggy, monochromatic day, with the sun barely piercing the clouds, the flat black panels planted nearby in two long rows were generating electricity.
“There’s enough energy produced to run the whole complex,” said DeBaillie, 50, who farms 6,500 acres with his brother and cousin. They typically grow corn and soybeans each spring, but this year they want to put more solar panels on 15 acres — and sell the energy.
The earnings, he said, would be about three times what an average harvest would yield there.
Across the flatlands of Illinois, a new ‘crop’ is rising among the traditional waves of grain as farmers increasingly make the same calculation as DeBaillie. Hundreds have applied to host acres of solar panels on their property, a move encouraged by a state law requiring that renewable resources provide 25 percent of Illinois’ power by 2025.
The shift is controversial, and not just because of how it could alter the pastoral landscape. Taking some of the most fertile soil in the world out of production could have serious consequences for a booming population.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the state’s flagship public university, built its first 20-acre solar farm in 2015 in an effort to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. A second project, covering 55 acres, could be completed in 2020.
The university is focused on building solar panels on less-productive fields,
Evan DeLucia, director of the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation, said. Professors also are researching ways to grow high-value crops around the panels to keep land in production and maximize yields of energy and food.
“It’s not outside the realm of possibility to grow corn or beans under solar panels,” he said. “Imagine growing ginger, garlic, strawberries, a number of things that … could get you some bang for your buck per acre.”