There is an ongoing revolution in agriculture as growers explore new methods and aim for greater efficiencies while striving for year-round production.
Vertical farming — growing plants in vertically stacked layers, typically indoors — in plant factories represents one way producers are trying to optimize their approach. The U.S. Department of Agriculture noted in a 2018 blog post that vertical agriculture “could help increase food production and expand agricultural operations as the world’s population is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050.”
The advantages are potentially significant, because farmers can exercise more control over access to light and water, as well as better regulate temperature. But that very control can pose interesting challenges to electric utilities, including:
- Lighting: Unlike greenhouses, plant factories depend on indoor lighting. As the concept ramps up to large-scale production, this can require a lot of electricity. Producers are exploring the use of LED lighting to get increased efficiency and reduce energy loss to heat compared to incandescent lighting, but the greater cost of LED bulbs has to be balanced against the potential energy efficiency gains.
- Heating: Maintaining adequate heat — while compensating for any heat loss from lighting systems — can also place demand on the power supply, although the levels of demand could differ significantly depending on the time of the year. Using solar panels to power the heating system is unlikely to be a viable option, given the relatively small surface area of each plant factory’s roof.
- Cooling and ventilation: This climate control factor poses similar challenges in terms of energy consumption, depending again on regional climate and time of year.
- Concentration of load: Maximizing the benefits of vertical farming at any significant scale requires putting a lot of plant factories to work. Their collective presence and additional energy load within a region is a demand center that the local power provider needs to be prepared to serve reliably.
As indoor farming moves production farther from the ideal climate for any given plant species, the need to control the environment becomes stronger. The need for energy increases accordingly. Vertical farming has the potential to increase the load required for a single kilogram of produce by 350%.
These vertical farms are increasingly locating in rapidly urbanizing areas where there is already a large supply of — and demand for — power infrastructure. But with a relative lack of land for expansion, plant factories can be as potentially disruptive to utilities as is the booming need for electric vehicle charging stations.
Utilities need to be aware of growing agricultural demands and the steps being taken by producers within their territory in order to avoid surprises and maintain reliable service amid greater demand. They could potentially even help producers achieve efficiencies and resiliency that might help the grid at large.
Learn more about estimated energy consumption from indoor agriculture across a range of regions and seasons in a recent white paper exploring this powerful shift.