Energy Efficiency

Published on May 10th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Meet The New Pink Face Of Vertical LED Farming

May 10th, 2014 by  

Indoor vertical farms are on the rise, thanks partly to new high efficiency LED growing lights that cut electricity costs to the bone. LED farming translates into new opportunities for siting year-round hyperlocal, organic farm-to-table operations, especially if you throw in an assist from wind or solar energy.

Global lighting powerhouse Philips has just partnered up with the indoor vertical farmer and LED fan Green Sense Farms in a new R&D venture that could accelerate the LED farming trend, so let’s take a look and see what they’ve got cooking.

LED farming

LED farming (cropped) courtesy of Philips.

Green Sense Farms LED Farming

Indiana based Green Sense Farms bills itself as the largest indoor, commercial, vertical farm in the US. Located in the Chicago area, the company has a local market potential of 20,000,000, given its calculation of an average 75 food-miles from farm to table. The company also has a farm-to-table deadline goal of 24 hours.

The cost of energy for lighting has been holding the indoor farming market in check, but Green Sense illustrates what the bottom line potentials are once that factor is mitigated. The company’s operation already uses 1/10 the resources of outdoor farming in terms of water, land, and fertilizer.

For those of you to whom organic means chemical-free, the controlled indoor environment also enables Green Sense to grow its crops without harmful pesticides or herbicides. Serving a local market means no preservatives, either. The potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions related to transportation is another plus.

A couple of other advantages of a closed system are the elimination of nutrient-loaded runoff, and the potential for recycling water and nutrients.

Green Sense illustrates another key advantage of indoor LED farming, which is its adaptability to a wide range of landscapes and conditions. LED farms could also be  viable in environments that are just too weird for conventional outdoor or greenhouse farming. That includes underground farming and space based LED farming.

Philips And Green Sense

Philips has a jump on the LED commercial lighting market given its creatively aggressive pursuit of the US high efficiency lighting market for household use (here and here for example).

That market was recently kick-started by new federal efficiency standard that were passed under the Bush Administration and were phased in under the Obama Administration. The new regulations effectively phased out the 100-year-old technology behind conventional incandescent bulbs.

Republican legislators (even the smart ones) and pundits tried to whip public opinion against the light bulb “ban” when the phase-in began in 2011. However, they never had a chance of rolling back the new standards. In the face of broad public acceptance and industry support for new lighting tech, the opposition eventually gave up the ghost (not for nothing, but something very similar is happening with the Affordable Care Act).

In the commercial lighting market, that industry support for new technology has been rippling out across multiple sectors such as car manufacturing (check out GM’s massive LED retrofit, for example) as well as agriculture.

The new partnership (here’s that link again) pairs Philips’s experience in horticultural lighting (apparently all the way back to 1936) and  LED technology with Green Sense’s vertical hydroponic indoor farming model in an R&D venture that is expected to use 85 percent less energy than conventional indoor grow lights.

The energy savings is just for starters. Aside from using less energy, the partners aim to increase yield by using fine-tuned, tailor made “light recipes” that are specific to Green Sense’s produce. The idea is to achieve from 20 to 25 harvests per year.

As a test bed, the project is already off to a commercial scale start. Green Sense’s newly renovated growing area of 1 million cubic feet has a total of fourteen growing towers that are each 25 feet tall.

The project also pulls in academic partners and research institutes including the company Hort Americas.

Hyper-Efficient LED Farming For Hyper-Locavores

Green Sense also expects the project to lead to the kind of hyper-efficiencies that would make on site vertical farms a cost effective way for large institutions to procure fresh produce year ’round. That would include academic institutions, health care centers, and military installations for starters.


That brings up something we mentioned at the top, which is the potential for powering LED farming with renewable energy.

Notwithstanding its potential for high energy efficiency, indoor farming is highly exposed to interruptions in energy supply. Until recently, that would have precluded a reliance on wind or solar power.

However, as the wind and solar markets have been surging, so has the development of fuel cells, flow batteries, and other large scale on site energy storage technologies that provide security against grid disruptions and are ideal for storing intermittent energy sources, namely wind and solar.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • GiGreenGuru

    Great information. Since the climate continually changes globally, we need to have every tool available to us to be able to meet the needs of growing populations.
    Thanks for the data
    Shelter and Food for Everyone .com

  • Bongstar420

    I’m still waiting for 200lm/w 440’s, 660’s, and whites for $0.25/w.

  • Another greenhouse system that hasn’t been mentioned is “Aquaponics”. That’s the raising of fish and plants together where the fish provide the major nutrients and the plants clean the water for the fish. Symbiosis at it’s best.

    It occurs to me that, in a changing climate that puts traditional agriculture under stress we will be forced to resort to green-housing to feed ourselves. LED lighting will help to make it successful. Healthy food all year, lower transport costs, fewer fertilizers that are damaging the oceans, less H2O, more food per any given area, what’s not to like.

    Personally I’ve been trying find a way to raise money to build a greenhouse of my own to provide for my family and neighbors. A proof of concept type thing. Plus as I age (sneaking up on 70 now) I’ll need to stay active. I’ve gardened for years but that has limitations that a greenhouse doesn’t.
    A few examples

    Thanks for the post Tina.

  • Some crops are already grown in an artificial way in a closed environment (eg strawberries). So it is only natural to expand this further to other crops.

    The main difference here is the promotion of artificial light instead of natural light. What is nagging me is that a 20% solar panel linked to a, say, 50% efficient led only uses 10% of the energy hitting 1 m² of land. And 90% is wasted. So for 1 m² of farmland you’d need 10 m² of solar farm to get enough energy for the led’s. Am I missing something?

    • Ronald Brakels

      Things aren’t quite that bad. Firstly, LED lighting can be 90% although normal light fittings aren’t that efficient due to the need to create the sort of light people generally prefer. Also, plants reach their maximum photosynthetic potential at less than full direct sunshine. (They’re kind of like a rooftop solar system with an undersized inverter.) But, solar panels can generally make full use of direct sunshine. Also, LEDs can be tailored to emit light in the spectrum that plants grow best in, and can be matched to the needs of specific plants. This is the shorter and longer wavelengths of visible light. The stuff in the middle, green light, plants just reflect that so it’s wasted. Also, with indoor farming it may be possible to alter other factors that may make plants use light more efficiently such as CO2 concentration, although this is very much an “it depends” factor. So maybe with 20% efficient solar panels only three square meters of solar panels would be required to simulate normal sunshine for one square meter of plants. Of course, if you want to simulate constant sunshine you might need 12 or more square meters of solar panels and some sort of energy storage.

    • James Van Damme

      Factor in the amount of jet fuel required to ship those farmland strawberries from Morocco in February.

    • A Real Libertarian

      Am I missing something?

      1. Controlled environments are more efficient.

      2. This can be done in places where the crops won’t grow naturally.

      3. It can be used with Hydroponics & Aeroponics.

    • Bob_Wallace

      The one thing I see is the potential to do ‘urban gardening’/food production in places with low use building space but little open space.

      Create urban jobs and get more fresh produce into urban areas while avoiding transportation costs.

      Of course there’s “indoor growing”. I live in an area where a tremendous amount of electricity goes to grow lights. We could cut that use with LEDs, but we’ll likely cut it with legalization.

    • Diane

      To Mr. Brakels,
      We are building a vertical planting garden for a school project. What we have not been able to find is the strength of the LED light and the frequency of the high pulse of light to improve growth. Can you help us?

  • Ronald Brakels

    Not sure if indoor farming is highly exposed to interruptions in energy supply. Most plants seem to manage night time just fine. Lit greenhouses give their plants about 5 or more hours “sleep” a day, depending on what is being grown, so it seems like exactly the sort of thing that could work around the evening peak. While LEDs make 100% artificial light growing more practical, the main effect it is currently having is on existing lit greenhouses where it is replacing sodium vapour lamps as it they use about a third less electricity and results in less waste heat being generated.

    • “…and result in less waste heat being generated.”

      Actually, you see a lot of assimilation lighting here in The Netherlands precisely because of the waste heat. Greenhouse farmers have CHP generators that use the electricity for the lamps and the waste heat for heating the greenhouse.

      What could be the advantage of farming under 100% artificial lighting is that the construction of these food factories is cheaper than traditional greenhouses with their large glass surfaces. This glass is all single pane, so you can imagine the CO2 footprint trying too keep them warm in our frigid winters. Closed buildings are cheaper to insulate and the energy for keeping them warm will be virtually nothing. Probably the waste heat from the LED’s will be all that is necessary.

      And finally, I think the many attic weed farmers here will like the technology too.

      • Ronald Brakels

        Good point about waste heat not really being a big problem in areas where greenhouses are generally used. Combined Heat and Power is an efficient way to do things, especially if biomass waste produced by the greenhouse is used to provide power, as I understand many greenhouses in the Netherlands do. And saving on heating by having a well insulated building with highly efficient LEDs may well turn out to be more energy efficient than glass roofs in cold locations.

        • Bob_Wallace

          If one needs to heat greenhouse plants, it’s best to heat the soil.

          A solar water heating system with the heated water used in subsurface piping is likely the most efficient route if there is no surplus industrial/geothermal heat to tap.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Okay, let’s play “Pimp My Greenhouse”. Here’s what I’ve got to offer to make your future greenhouse the most awesome around:

            1. Greenhouse PV glass: It transmits the red and blue light that plants use while converting what’s in the middle into electricity.

            2. Insomniac Plants: Selective breeding resulting in plants that can make the most of continuous lighting.

            3. Desert Location: Low humidity equals fast growth and that’s what you’ll get in this beautiful fresh waterless region.

            4. Edible Halophytes: Salt tolerant plants that can grow in the brackish swill that is the only source of water in your desert location such as delicious Atriplex triangularis! Your children will only stab you a little if you try to feed it to them!

            5. Tank of Strawberry Cell Culture: These strawberry cells are cultured from a cell that had its DNA replaced with a single, better, artifical chromosome, making it suitable for growing in a tank fed by nuturients produced by tanks of artificial algae. Strawberry cells are fed into a 3D printer to produce perfect stawberries every time. The process has been so perfected that they now hardly ever scream when you bite into them.

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