New Study to Look at the Energy Costs of Indoor Farming

Indoor farming, also known as controlled-environment agriculture (CEA), can offer many advantages compared with conventional farming, including reduced water use, more efficient use of land, and the ability to produce food year-round. But in order to fully capitalize on these advantages, the industry must find a way to overcome one of its biggest challenges: high energy costs.

Unlike conventional farming operations where crop growth is powered by sunlight alone, indoor farming facilities rely partially or exclusively on electricity-consuming artificial lighting systems. And even with recent advances in lighting technology, these systems can still be very energy-intensive — and consequently expensive — to run. Experts estimate that energy costs can make up as much as 60% of a greenhouse or plant factory’s total costs, and about half of that figure is accounted for by lighting. As a result, US growers end up spending about $600 million per year on the electricity needed to run the lighting systems in their facilities, which constitutes a significant barrier to the economic feasibility of the CEA industry as a whole, to say nothing of the carbon footprint produced by this level of energy consumption.

Fortunately, solutions may be at hand to help CEA growers cut their energy costs in half. The University of Georgia is currently working on a research study called the LAMP project (Lighting Approaches to Maximize Profits), which aims to explore new and innovative strategies for making CEA lighting more efficient. Read on to learn more about the LAMP study and its objectives.

What is the impetus behind the LAMP project?

Indoor farming and CEA growing practices are becoming increasingly popular as farmers look for new ways to sustainably feed a rapidly growing population. But the high rate of energy usage (and the associated high costs) required for most CEA facilities means that it can be difficult for indoor farmers to profitably grow anything but the most valuable crops. This places a huge financial risk on indoor growers, and it also greatly constrains the capacity of indoor farms to produce the food that people want in locations where it’s needed.

The LAMP study hopes to reduce the costs and carbon footprint of CEA by tackling the question of lighting systems: by far the single biggest consumer of energy in an indoor growing facility, as mentioned above. If CEA lighting could be more energy-efficient, that could significantly reduce the costs and carbon footprint of indoor farming, and thus open the door for a greater variety of crops to be grown in more diverse regions, including arid, frigid, or urban areas.

What questions does the LAMP project aim to answer?

To further its exploration of CEA lighting energy costs, the LAMP research team is currently working on developing a prototype lighting system that leverages informatics, engineering, highly efficient LED lights, and cutting-edge greenhouse management practices. Informatics, data, and automation technologies will be used to refine lighting efficiency, schedule lighting in accordance with peak power-use times, and reduce light use when natural sunlight is available. Researchers are also looking at how limited-spectrum lighting, which requires less energy, affects crops in terms of growth and quality.

The goal of the LAMP project is to help CEA growers answer several basic, but essential questions, such as: is it truly cost-effective to use artificial lighting in their specific situation? If so, which type of lighting (high-pressure sodium or LED lamps) is a better option? And how can those particular lamps be used most cost-effectively? Having answers to these questions can help individual farmers and the broader industry determine whether it’s feasible (and profitable) to grow CEA crops in a particular location, or whether it still makes better economic and environmental sense to ship food grown elsewhere. The results of the research could also impact scenarios like the provision of fresh food to deployed military troops, or the supply of fresh produce to desert or arctic locations.

Who is leading and supporting the LAMP project?

The LAMP project’s team comprises a diverse set of researchers from many different areas of specialization: the idea behind the team’s composition is that a cross-disciplinary group will be better able to bring new and different ideas to the table.

The lead researcher on the LAMP project is Marc van Iersel, a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Dr. van Iersel brings to the project more than a decade of experience studying how greenhouses can reduce their lighting and irrigation costs. His colleagues include horticulture professor Paul Thomas, impact evaluation expert Kay Kelsey, and agricultural economist Ben Campbell. Further contributions to the project will be made by faculty from the UGA College of Engineering and Terry College of Business, Cornell University, Rutgers University, Utah State University, and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The LAMP project is supported by a $5 million grant from the National Institute for Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research, an initiative of the US Department of Agriculture.