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How the Rise in Indoor Agriculture Has Capitalized on Energy-Saving Technologies

By 2050, the world’s population is expected to be almost 10 billion, 80 percent of whom will live in cities. Because of industrial development and urbanization, the earth has lost one-third of its tillable land over the last 40 years and continues to  lose more every day. Feeding our human population is a growing challenge.

That’s part of why recent developments in indoor agriculture and vertical farming, made possible by a growth in energy-saving technologies, are gaining so much attention.

What is indoor farming?

Indoor farming is a method of growing crops or plants, usually on a large scale, entirely indoors where all environmental factors can be controlled. These facilities utilize artificial control of light, environmental control (humidity, temperature, gases, etc.) and fertigation, which is the injection of fertilizers into an irrigation system. Because of the enormous expense of artificial lighting, growing indoors used to be confined to highly profitable markets (like cannabis). But dramatic improvements in grow-light efficiency and new ways of controlling growing conditions have redefined the economics of indoor farming.

Now you can buy tasty, fresh greens grown indoors for the same price as those farmed in California fields. Vertical farming produces foods in vertically stacked layers in skyscrapers, shipping containers or repurposed warehouses, artificially controlling the temperature, light, humidity and gases to maximize crop output in a limited space.

Indoor farms are being used to grow basil in New York, arugula in Chicago, and even lettuce in Anchorage, Alaska. Outside the US, Japan boasts 200 large-scale indoor “plant factories,” and China has 80. While vertical farming is still a small segment of the market, it is growing rapidly and is anticipated to hit $5.8 billion by 2022.

But bringing the farm indoors has its challenges too, especially in the area of energy efficiency. One of the main ways to save energy in indoor farming is with more efficient grow lights.

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Energy-saving grow lights

Grow lights are artificial light sources designed to stimulate plant growth by emitting an electromagnetic spectrum perfect for photosynthesis. Of the grow light options, light-emitting diode (LED) is the most relevant.

LED grow lights are almost twice as energy efficient as CFLs, they last over 10 years and their heat production is near zero. Advances in LED technology since around 2000 have made it possible to create the perfect energy efficient environment to cultivate vegetables at a large scale, with shorter growing cycles and higher yields. Switching from 1 kW high-intensity discharge lamps typically used in greenhouses to LEDs cuts electricity use by about 70 percent, for example.

LED bulbs used to be prohibitively expensive, but the Department of Energy says the price has fallen 90 percent since 2010 and should keep falling. Such decreases are making the economics of indoor farming far more attractive. For example, cheap, efficient LED lighting made all the difference for Edenworks, an indoor aquaponic farm in Brooklyn, whose facility would have cost four times as much if they’d built with LEDs in 2010, according to CEO Jason Green.

Reduced chemical and water use

Traditionally, farming is a high-cost, low-margin business, especially at small scales. According to an Iowa State University study, more than one-third of operating budgets are spent on pesticides, fertilizer, herbicides and labor. Producing crops in a highly controlled indoor environment means they can be pesticide-free and organic. That saves indirect energy costs by minimizing irrigation, chemical and labor expenses.

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For example, AeroFarms is a major US vertical farming company. Its 70,000–square foot facility in Newark, NJ, grows 250 types of greens and herbs on trays stacked 30 feet high, completely free of fertilizers and pesticides. Its products are available in supermarkets for $3.99 a package. Indoor farming also allows crops to be produced using 70 to 95 percent less water than required for normal cultivation.

The future of indoor farming

Undeniably, there are disadvantages to the indoor farming model. For example, while it may be attractive to locate vertical farms close to the cities where consumers live, sky-high real estate prices in urban areas may undermine the financial viability of such projects.

Vertical farming is also extremely dependent on various technologies for lighting and maintaining temperature and humidity. Even a brief loss of power could prove disastrous.

In addition, hourly labor costs for indoor farms can be much higher than for agriculture in general, because of the need for highly skilled and trained workers (to manually pollinate plants, for example). On the other hand, automation of some tasks cuts labor requirements in other areas.

Overall, improving energy efficiency technologies—coupled with humanity’s need to feed its burgeoning population using ever smaller areas of land—mean the future of indoor agriculture looks bright. To learn about Franklin Energy's agricultural capabilities and discover how we're supporting this vital sector, download our agriculture case studies.

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Grow Light Options for Indoor and Vertical Farming, The Balance: www.thebalance.com/grow-light-options-for-indoor-and-vertical-farming-4147429

What You Should Know About Vertical Farming, The Balance: www.thebalance.com/what-you-should-know-about-vertical-farming-4144786

The price of LEDs is falling so fast it’s profitable to farm in a New Jersey nightclub, Quartz: https://qz.com/705398/the-price-of-leds-is-falling-so-fast-its-profitable-to-farm-in-a-new-jersey-nightclub/

Switching from HID lamps to LED lights will decrease electricity use by 70 percent, Hortidaily: http://www.hortidaily.com/article/9987/Switching-from-HID-lamps-to-LED-lights-will-decrease-electricity-use-by-70-percent

Novato company puts the green in greenhouses, Marinij.com: http://www.marinij.com/general-news/20140707/novato-company-puts-the-green-in-greenhouses

Incentives For Cannabis Cultivation, Energy Trust of Oregon: https://www.energytrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/ind_fs_cannabis_cultivation.pdf

Fred Daniels
Written by Fred Daniels

Senior Program Manager
With decades of experience and a deep-rooted passion, Fred Daniels has successfully implemented energy efficiency programs throughout a variety of sectors. Fred performs facility audits to identify energy savings opportunities and handles hiring, training and mentoring for numerous programs. He has authored many energy conservation articles, presented at numerous national industry conferences, and received recognition by former Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle for Excellence in Service to the Agricultural Community. Fred holds a bachelor’s degree in recreational management from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.


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