Written by: Sarah Jordan
June 15, 2023
Renewable energy has the potential to significantly improve indoor agriculture by providing climate-smart power sources to farmers. Currently, around 80% of global energy is generated by burning fossil fuels, so renewable energy sources are a welcome change for the preservation of our environment. The recent variability of standard energy sources has upset many CEA operations. While standard energy sources typically come at a lower cost, the reliability of the cost of renewable energy is helpful (and necessary) for farms to plan and make strategic decisions to balance their operational costs in the long term.
Indoor agriculture, which includes practices such as vertical farming, greenhouse cultivation, and hydroponics, relies heavily on artificial lighting, climate control, and fertigation systems, which means that these farms are not always more energy-efficient than traditional agriculture. To bridge this gap, and to create a more resilient future, integrating renewable energy into controlled environment agriculture (CEA) facilities can be a great option for farmers looking to cut down on their carbon footprint.
Energy is considered renewable when it does not deplete natural resources in our environment. There are many different types of renewable energy, including solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, and tidal. It is important to note that not all renewable energy sources are sustainable, and the environmental impact of each energy source should be carefully considered before implementation.
Furthermore, by embracing renewable energy, farmers can open up new income streams for their operations. They can sell excess electricity back to the grid or engage in community-based energy projects. Renewable energy infrastructure, such as wind farms or solar parks, can also provide lease opportunities. In this article, we will primarily explore options for farmers to power their farms with renewable energy, but this benefit is not to be overlooked when considering implementing renewable energy into a farming facility.
Various successful farms in the industry rely on renewable energy to lower their carbon footprint, have a predictable source of energy, and embrace circularity. YASAI is a vertical farm in Zürich, Switzerland that runs on 100% renewable energy. Because of their choice to integrate renewables into their facility, they are not affected by the current surge in European energy prices, making the farm able to withstand fluctuating prices since they operate independently of the grid.
Another farm that utilizes renewable energy is Bowery, which powers its farms in Maryland and New Jersey with 100% renewables. Similarly to YASAI, this offers more stability than the grid because their energy costs remain the same over time. In 2022, Bowery opened a new facility, similarly powered with renewable energy, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Credit: MIT News.
Solar energy is perhaps the most widely used renewable energy source in the CEA industry, and it has gotten much more press in recent years due to increased interest in the concept of agrivoltaics. Once the initial installation costs are recovered, the electricity generated from solar panels is cost-effective, which can be a huge benefit to farmers, as it could lower their utility bills, leaving more money to invest in business development or equipment upgrades. Solar panels have a long lifespan, typically ranging from 25 to 30 years or more, with minimal maintenance requirements. Investing in solar energy provides a stable and predictable energy source for indoor farms over the long term.
Wind power is another option for farmers looking to make the switch to renewable energy. Although it is less suitable for CEA operations, it can still work in certain locations and farm setups. One main consideration when implementing wind farms is cost. According to Penn State Extension, “The total cost for a cluster of eight wind machines now costs about $14 to $16 million.” This is cost prohibitive for many farmers, especially with the financial turbulence present in the industry today. However, one way to work around this is by obtaining financial incentives from the government, which encourage the adoption of renewable energy through tax breaks and grants. The most likely use for wind farms in CEA is powering greenhouses or vertical farms in more rural and coastal areas. For example, Nordic Harvest, a Danish vertical farm just outside of Copenhagen, has utilized wind power since opening in 2020.
Credit: American Geosciences Institute.
Farmers can also consider hydropower when looking for alternative energy sources to run their operations. This form of renewable energy harnesses the natural power of flowing water, often using dams to increase the intensity of the flowing water. Typically, facilities will need to be located near a water source, which is important for farmers to consider if they are looking to integrate hydropower into their CEA facility.
Hydropower currently “provides around 16% of the world’s electricity,” suggesting it has the potential to expand and support burgeoning industries like CEA. As a clean source of energy, hydropower is a climate-smart option for farmers looking to lower their impact on the environment. Perhaps most importantly, it has great potential for scalability. The size of hydropower facilities ranges massively, as does their energy output, meaning they can be suited to any size of CEA facility. There can be drawbacks to using this sort of technology, but overall, it is often a more sustainable choice than traditional non-renewable options like burning fossil fuels.
Credit: Tara Energy.
Geothermal energy harnesses the natural heat of the earth’s core through reservoirs of hot water. One particular benefit of geothermal energy is that only a small footprint is needed to generate energy. Similarly to hydropower, geothermal energy generates no greenhouse gases, which is a big benefit to farmers looking to decrease their carbon footprint.
Currently, geothermal energy is used in greenhouse cultivation. It can be used to heat greenhouses or adjust humidity as needed, and the hot water can even be used to sterilize farm equipment. Further expansion of geothermal energy is certainly possible and could benefit many CEA farmers globally with broader adoption.
Tidal energy is a newer form of renewable energy, meaning practical applications are still being explored and developed. It is produced by harnessing the natural power of ocean waves. There are numerous challenges facing the broader adoption of tidal power, which include limited locations for harvesting and high production costs. However, the predictability of the tides makes this form of energy more reliable than more popular sources of energy like solar or wind. Further advancements in research will indicate whether or not this option is a viable energy source for CEA farms.
The shift towards renewable energy offers substantial advantages for farmers. From environmental benefits to increased energy independence and economic opportunities, embracing clean energy solutions is a win-win proposition that can lead to a more sustainable and prosperous agricultural sector for all.Read MoreUrban Agriculture Blog Feed