The idea of growing crops year-round with a tightly controlled climate, few pests and pesticides, and little or no soil, sunlight and water may sound like fantasy, but it is becoming more and more of a reality.
Vertical farming, a type of indoor agriculture, is not a new phenomenon, but it has been gaining traction in recent years. In addition to the characteristics noted above, these farms tout their efficient use of land and reduced transportation miles, which save costs and emissions. For these reasons, vertical farms have been popping up across the world over the past decade, and today, produce grown in these farms can be found in metropolitan areas throughout the U.S.
As the name sounds, vertical farming refers to building up rather than out. In one of these farms, which can take shape in a warehouse, an old big-box store, an abandoned office building, a shipping container and the like, greens are stacked atop one another in beds or along vertical towers. Water combined with nutrients can perform the work that soil typically does – there are several different models that can be used – and in place of sunlight, you’ll often find tons of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) shining 24 hours a day. Cameras and sensors help optimize the light, temperature and humidity and produce data that provides insight into how the operation is running.
But all of the processes and technologies require significant amounts of energy. Lighting in particular plays a large role, but high levels of ventilation and heating and cooling are used as well. Unsurprisingly, electricity is a huge cost for vertical farms, and currently, leafy greens are the most popular product in part because they require less light, and therefore energy, to produce.
Given the electricity needs of vertical farms, they can represent large operations that contribute to utility growth, but utilities must ensure they have sufficient capacity to meet demand, especially if more arrive. Although a benefit of these farms is their ability to operate all day and year (without being affected by the seasons and weather), time-of-use rates could help encourage production to shift to off-peak periods. This would ease pressure on utilities and could lower energy costs for farming. Likewise, demand response could play a role by having farms turn off lighting for a few hours during peak times. Because these farms operate indoors and year-round, they have more flexibility to work with utilities.
Questions remain about vertical farming’s future and place in agriculture. Startup, scaling and labor costs – on top of energy – all remain high, and other obstacles exist as well, but its advantages make it a sort of new frontier, and electric utilities should be ready.