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Science Reality – Growing Food Without the Sun!

And now for something completely different. Last blog we examined wireless advantages to lighting Going Wireless – A Practical Solution, now I want to turn focus onto a specific area of interest in lighting. Growing food without the sun sounds like science fiction, but the technology exists and is becoming commercially viable. Vertical farms, or large indoor warehouses converted to grow food in a sterile environment, are beginning to sprout up in large cities around the world. LEDs, with their high efficacy and ability to produce any light on the color spectrum, are the driving technology behind vertical farms, which may be the key to solving some of the world’s food and water shortage challenges.

So how can LED Lighting Help?

Vertical farming is one technique that we can use to address this pressing issue.  Vertical farming eliminates environmental risks, like crop flooding and damage from pests. Vertical farming produces year-round harvests and the controlled nature of the indoor environment means harvests are predictable. Agriculture uses about 70% of all water and traditional approaches do not recycle water. Nitrate run-off from fertilizers contaminates water and increases hypoxia, a deficiency of oxygen, further stressing fresh water supplies. Vertical farming has been shown to increase water conservation up to 98% compared to baseline and produces no run-off. The benefits of vertical farming are numerous but present some significant challenges to overcome, none more so than growing plants without the sun.

LEDs are the answer to overcoming this hurdle. Firstly, LEDs consume much less power than traditional high intensity discharge (HID) sources. This helps lower operating costs, which makes the business case for LEDs stronger. Assuming a .07¢ kwh, and a schedule of 18hrs/day 7 days a week, a traditional HID fixture (456 input watts) would cost $209.71 a year to operate. The LED equivalent (175 input watts) would cost only $80.48 to operate, representing a savings of $129.33 a fixture. A vertical farm of 30,000 sq./ft., would require approximately 3,000 fixtures for agricultural production. When calculating facility wide savings, the LED system saves $387,990 yearly in electric costs.

Besides energy savings, LEDs can be tuned to produce any light on the color spectrum. For example, lettuce production is optimized when blue light is at 440nm and red light is at 660nm. LEDs allow plant biologists and lighting specialists to create ‘light recipes’ for each species grown. The recipe produces the correct ratio of colors and intensity to maximize photosynthesis. This helps increase energy efficiency by eliminating the production of colors that plants are not using for photosynthesis. Because LED produce less heat than HID sources, they can be placed closer to the plants, allowing rows to be stacked closer together. The combination of the ‘light recipe’ and closer stacking allow for more frequent harvests and increased yields per harvest. Green Scene Farms of Chicago, a leader in vertical farming, claims to harvest a lettuce crop in 42 days, which is 3-17 days shorter than traditional farming.

LEDs more efficient thermal management means less heat must be dissipated, which lowers HVAC costs. Unlike traditional agriculture, vertical farms are more efficient in cold climates by pumping in cold air to cool the space. Because LEDs are a digital technology, they are inherently controllable. When combined with a Smart Lighting Solutions (SLS) system, the lighting and HVAC can be automated to create the ideal environment while using the least amount of energy.

How can Utilities Help?

The commercial viability of large-scale vertical farms has yet to be established. The number one barrier to entry is initial cost. Utilities have a role to play in lowering costs by crafting incentives that help producers chose the most efficient technology at the time of design. For vertical farms, this is LED lighting controlled by a Smart Lighting Solutions system that ties into HVAC and other Building Management Systems (BMS).  Not only does the incentive help lower acquisition costs, but helps the business case for vertical farms by lowering operating costs.

The world is undergoing transformational demographic change during a time of climate volatility. This means more mouths to feed and a more challenging environment to plant growth. Vertical farming is emerging as one technique that can help meet these new challenges. Though currently limited commercially to leafy greens, vertical farming has the potential to expand to any lifeform that relies on photosynthesis. Vertical farming is sustainable agriculture that produces more frequent harvests, higher yields and with more predictability. Emerging technologies, like LEDs and Smart Lighting Solutions (SLS), are helping birth this new industry. Utility incentives are paramount for lowering acquisition costs for the most efficient products and techniques. No one knows what the future holds, but vertical farming with LEDs have a bright, efficient and green future.

Mega Trends: Framing the Problem and the Global Impact

In 2016, DNV GL published ‘Technology Outlook 2025’, which is a detailed report on the mega trends impacting our world and the technology arising to meet those new challenges. Three of the mega trends– climate-change, urbanization and demographic growth–will help spur innovation and drive growth in vertical farming.

Climate Change: The global environment is under tremendous pressure from a range of influences, including climate change, deforestation, and pollution. By 2025, DNV GL predicts the world will acknowledge that we are on a path to 3°C warming. The changing climate will impact rainfall, temperature, and storm intensity affecting plant growth. In addition to climate change, deforestation is destroying about 5 million hectares a year, largely for agriculture. Finally, global water demand will likely increase by 55% by 2025, affecting 1.8 billion people living in regions of water scarcity. Agricultural run-off from nitrates will further affect water scarcity, increasing hypoxia in the world’s lakes by 20%, mainly in Asia, Africa and Brazil.

Urbanization: By 2030 there will be 5 billion people living in cities, up from 3.5 billion in 2010. Six out of ten people will be city dwellers. Urbanization will increase the geographic and carbon footprint of cities, which exacerbates climate change. Cities are in a unique position to take the lead on sustainability by partnering with non-state actors to design processes that fuel economic expansion by incorporating green measures.

Demographics: Population growth; currently increasing by more than 80 million a year, by this rate the global population will reach Most of the growth will occur in the developing world, which is the area being the most impacted by climate-change and urbanization.

These trends, acting in concert, are creating a perfect storm. The world is growing; the world’s population is becoming denser and climate change is making it harder to produce food using traditional measures. To stop the coming storm, the world must look to new technologies and techniques to feed our growing population.

For more information about commercial lighting or the DNV GL Smart Lighting Solutions incentive program please visit our Knowledge Hub or feel free to reach out. For my next blog post, we will peer into the crystal ball to see what the future may have to offer for utility incentive programs.


DNV GL has successfully designed and implemented Smart Lighting Solutions projects on behalf of our utility clients for four years. Our team has significant project experience in both retrofitting and new construction of lighting projects. We work through the project life-cycle to identify, justify and evaluate energy saving measures and provide post-installation engineering review to verify savings.

 Our team is available to work directly with large institutions to assist them with Smart Lighting Solutions projects. For more information, please contact Wesley Whited. Wesley Whited is a Senior Consultant for Smart Lighting Solutions at DNV GL. Mr. Whited has seven years’ experience in the commercial lighting market ranging from project management to sales. Mr. Whited is a graduate of West Virginia University (WVU) and holds a MBA from Capital University in Columbus, OH.



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