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Ag-to-energy farmland use is focus of new $2.4M grant

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation have awarded a three-year, $2.4 million grant to a team of Cornell researchers who will study how agriculture-to-energy land-use conversions – putting solar panels or wind turbines on arable farmland – could impact food production, energy prices, water quality and resilience to changes in climate.

Six Cornell faculty members – an energy engineer, an applied dynamic structural econometrician, an agricultural and climate change economist, a statistical hydroclimatologist, a hydrologist and an agricultural scientist – will create models designed to focus on the interrelationships between food, energy and water. The award was granted through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), on behalf of the NSF’s INFEWS (Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems) program.

Cornell impacting New York State

“An interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach is critical for understanding how the food-energy-water system is being transformed through ag-to-energy land conversions – as well as the potential implications,” said principal investigator C.-Y. Cynthia Lin Lawell, associate professor and the Robert Dyson Sesquicentennial Chair in Environmental, Energy and Resource Economics.

“If we are going to address the big problems of our times, it is essential to collaborate across disciplines,” said principal investigator M. Todd Walter, professor of biological and environmental engineering. “In this project, the collaboration is intricately entwined – as opposed to the common framework in which each discipline works in parallel with the others.”

For the project, the faculty will devise a model to investigate how ag-to-energy land-use conversions will propagate through the dynamics of land markets, and how such conversions will affect and be affected by agricultural production, water quality and quantity, and electrical grid operational efficiency.

“This will provide a scientific basis to improve national, state and regional policy decisions related to land use, agriculture, renewable energy and energy prices over time … in order to maximize net benefits to society,” Lin Lawell said.

The researchers will apply the modeling framework to New York state, which they see as an ideal proving ground due to its goals to achieve 50% renewable electricity by 2030. New York also offers a self-contained water system and a thriving agricultural sector that is threatened by climate change.

Said Lin Lawell: “Our framework will allow us to explore the potential for solar, wind and bio-based electricity generation – distributed across agricultural land – to provide economic benefits at the farm scale, while also promoting farm and grid-scale resilience to changes in climate.”

In addition to Lin Lawell and Walter, the other principal investigators are C. Lindsay Anderson, associate professor in biological and environmental engineering; Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, assistant professor at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management; Scott Steinschneider, assistant professor of biological and environmental engineering; and Peter Woodbury, senior research associate in soil and crop sciences.

All of the investigators are fellows at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, where Anderson is also the Kathy Dwyer Marble and Curt Marble Faculty Director for Energy.

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Lindsey Hadlock