November 18, 2022

How to manage rising energy and operational costs with vertical farming technology

Across the world, the price of oil, gas and electricity is rising. So what can CEA and glasshouse growers do to remain productive, financially viable, and meet their ESG targets in the current climate?

Written by
Callum Farquhar
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Pressure is increasing on the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) sector–and costs are on the rise, too. For indoor farmers, the drive to be as energy efficient as possible is nothing new.  

The sector has been shaped by various developments, including an increased awareness of climate change, tighter environmental legislation and government schemes incentivising renewable energy. Keeping energy consumption down helps companies deliver against the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDG) and internal environmental, social and governance (ESG) targets. This ‌helps generate real financial value and increases business resilience–especially in the current social climate.  

However, the current unprecedented rise in energy costs has presented the CEA sector with its greatest challenge yet. Plus, problems have been compounded by global political instability, localised shortages and storage issues. Across the world, the price of oil, gas and electricity is rising, and even those companies reliant on renewables have seen energy prices spike.  

For large-scale growers, there’s an obvious conflict. Many struggle with keeping production high without increasing energy consumption. More energy means significantly increased costs, missed environmental targets and damage to a hard-won reputation for sustainability.

So what can CEA and glasshouse growers do to remain productive, financially viable, and meet their ESG targets in the current climate?  

Not all controlled environments are created equal

Built outside with exposure to natural light, conventional glasshouse farms have to balance the competing demands of light transmission, heat loss, and cost when choosing glazing materials. Air leakage is also a real issue, causing between 5 and 40% of heat loss from glasshouse systems.[1]

Many glasshouse-growing businesses deal with supplementary lighting costs due to low natural light levels. Humidity also needs to be carefully monitored and adjusted with potential disease spread in mind–just a few of the unpredictable and potentially costly challenges of using CEA.  

Our vertical growing technology offers growers a solution: something we call the Total Controlled Environmental Agriculture, or TCEA. Our Growth Towers are airtight, watertight, and immune to risk from fungi, vermin and other hazards, allowing growers to create a predictable, repeatable–and energy-efficient—growing environment.

Precisely control the environment and operational costs

Lighting is a huge consideration for CEAs. IGS’ TCEA system delivers precise levels of light required to plants only when they need it, using our patented technology.

Lighting is critical to influencing photomorphogenesis which is basically its appearance, and secondary metabolites which influence taste and nutritional value.

This can be achieved with intensive white lighting, but that requires more energy. White light also limits the ability to change crop characteristics beyond what it can achieve with a fixed broad spectrum. At IGS we use variable and precisely controlled wavelengths to influence appearance, structure, nutrition and taste in a multitude of ways but with less energy. IGS’ patented three-phase power and control platform is not only highly efficient but empowers farmers to grow a diverse range of crops predictably and consistently.

Power consumption is also reduced because the light is close to the crop canopy. The spacing of our Growth Tray with Lights can be 250mm or 300mm. This is the optimum height for most seed-to-harvest crops (e.g. microgreens, leafy greens and herbs). Many alternative systems have greater distances which require more energy. Spacing can be doubled to 500mm or 600mm if required for example for tomato starter plants.

Tightly controlled and UV-filtered air management also provides a uniform environment that’s best for growth while keeping running costs to a minimum. Our patented airflow and HVAC technology is a closed-loop system. This works in tandem with the rest of the system to maintain the desired CO2, temperature, humidity, and pressure both above the plant, within the canopy, and at a consistent level throughout the Growth Tower. With other systems, ventilation is carried out from a single or small number of sources which can be energy intensive.

There’s also water to consider. Growth Towers are four times as efficient as smart glasshouses and 80 times more efficient than an open field. Our closed-loop fertigation system captures, cleans, re-doses and recycles all the nutrient solution, meaning the only water leaving the towers is in the crops themselves. The remaining small amount of wastewater is flushed every six months depending on the crop.  

With water charges expected to rise 13% in 2023, this is another way IGS helps large-scale growers reduce their costs.[2]

Our focus on automation and specialised growth tower technologies give TCEA an edge over the traditional CEA farm. IGS is one of the few vertical growth companies in the world operating at level four automation[3]. Automated processes in the Growth Towers can remove 24/7 monitoring and management by personnel. According to an IDTechEx report (2020), labour is typically 35-40% of operational costs in the USA and Europe.[4] Automation also gives you the option to run daylight cycles overnight when energy tariffs can be cheaper.    

In addition, with Demand Side Response capabilities built in, Growth Towers can become energy assets, especially when co-located with other assets such as renewables. Large megawatt farms can be paid for running their operation at full capacity during off-peak periods or at reduced capacity when demand is high. Crops don’t mind when they get ‘daylight’ as long as they get the required number of hours out of every 24. You can give control to the energy company and allow them to switch the farm on and off as it suits them. This enables farmers to negotiate commercially advantageous tariffs. IGS’ technology is not only reducing the amount of power but also getting the cost of that power down as well.

CEA farms need supplementary CO2 for productive growth. The food industry is facing additional pressure as the price per tonne of CO has increased 3,000 per cent since October 2021 [5]. A decline in UK CO2 production and geopolitical factors are contributing to the gas shortage and consequent price hikes. Fortunately, IGS Growth Tower uses 98% less CO2  (per kg dry weight of crop) compared to glasshouses[6].

To summarise, how does IGS’ Growth Tower technology help clients in the CEA sector cut costs?

  • Efficient energy consumption. IGS’ holistic approach to engineering and its patented technology for power, control and automation systems deliver significant energy efficiencies. Demand Side Response integration can be commercially advantageous.  
  • By cutting other input costs. Our lighting, fertigation and airflow systems are carefully monitored and automatically controlled, maximising growing conditions while minimising waste and energy consumption.
  • By using level four adaptive automation. Maintains a consistent environment using the optimal level of energy. The daytime growing cycle can run during the off-peak energy period.

The result? Maximum growth; minimal labour, inputs, waste and running costs.  

Interested in how IGS’ revolutionary Growth Towers could help your farm combat rising energy costs? Take a virtual tour and see what the future of vertical farming looks like.

Sources

[1] Energy Management in Protected Cropping https://projectblue.blob.core.windows.net/media/Default/Imported%20Publication%20Docs/AHDB%20Horticulture%20/EnergyManagement211_WEB.pdf.    

[2] Castle Water. “Castle Water CEO Warns of Rise in Water Bills from April 2023.” Castle Water, 10 Aug. 2022, https://www.castlewater.co.uk/news/castle-water-ceo-warns-of-rise-in-water-bills-from-april-2023

[3] ‘Automation: The final frontier of vertical farming’ (2019) Agritecture. (Accessed: 19 June 2020). https://www.agritecture.com/blog/2019/5/10/automation-the-final-frontier-of-vertical-farming

[4] Dr Michael Kent (2020) Vertical Farming: 2020-2030—Technologies, markets and forecasts in indoor vertical growing. Available at (page 16). (Accessed: 12 October 2021)

https://www.idtechex.com/en/research-report/vertical-farming-2020-2030/719  

[5] Dimitris Mavrokefalidis (2022). CO2 price hike could add an extra £1.7bn to the price of UK groceries. Energy Live News (Accessed: 5 October 2022)

https://www.energylivenews.com/2022/10/03/co2-price-hike-could-add-an-extra-1-7bn-to-the-price-of-uk-groceries/

[6] Graamans et al (2018) Plant factories versus greenhouses: Comparison of resource use efficiency. Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2017.11.003


Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Hydroponics, aquaponics or vertical farming – which works best for you?

Hydroponics, aquaponics and vertical farming are all becoming evermore common in food production – but what are the key benefits of each, and how do they work in principle? We’ve broken down all three, alongside any environmental footprints and how they fit into modern agriculture.

Hydroponics, aquaponics and vertical farming are all becoming evermore common in food production – but what are the key benefits of each, and how do they work in principle? We’ve broken down all three, alongside any environmental footprints and how they fit into modern agriculture.

Monday, July 24, 2023

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Basil is one of the most popular culinary herbs and is commonly grown in a vertical farm as a seed-to-harvest crop. In this blog, we explore how an IGS vertical farm creates the perfect growing environment for basil.

Basil is one of the most popular culinary herbs and is commonly grown in a vertical farm as a seed-to-harvest crop. In this blog, we explore how an IGS vertical farm creates the perfect growing environment for basil.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Can renewable energy be used in vertical farming?

In this blog, we explore the potential of renewable energy sources to power vertical farming systems.

In this blog, we explore the potential of renewable energy sources to power vertical farming systems.