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From (CEA) Farm to Table

An introduction to Controlled Environment Agriculture, and how Combined Heat and Power keeps those farms running.

  • Controlled Environment Agriculture greenhouse in the Netherlands
  • Combined Heat and Power could revolutionize local agriculture.

By 2050, the global population is projected to grow to 10 billion—a dramatic increase from the current count of 7 billion people. With such a significant spike in such a short period of time, food production is quickly rocketing to the top of the list of the world’s problems. So, what can be done to prevent a global food crisis?

To understand the problems currently facing modern agriculture and other looming issues, we turn to the country that is revolutionizing food production. It’s the second largest exporter of food in the world, and agriculture accounts for 83 percent of its GDP. Any guesses?

It’s the Netherlands. Or, should we say, “Food Valley.”

Food Valley is actually more than a nickname; it’s the main agrifood ecosystem in the Netherlands “characterized by many world class innovated agrifood and food-related solutions and by the cooperation between companies, educational institutions, and governments.” A huge part of the Netherlands’ success stems from unrivaled agricultural education, research, and innovation. In fact, Wageningen University in the Netherlands is the world's leading institution for agricultural education.

Ernst van den Ende, the managing director of the Plant Sciences Group at Wageningen, told National Geographic in 2017 that humanity will have to produce “more food in the next four decades than all farmers in history have harvested over the past 8,000 years.” In the Netherlands, these findings help to drive the intense revolution of the agricultural industry in Food Valley. Out of this mix of urgency, but also optimism, came a solution: Controlled Environment Agriculture.

Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is what some agricultural experts refer to simply as “the future of farming.” CEA involves growing plants in greenhouses as big as a rural warehouse or as small as an apartment bedroom. The hallmarks of CEA are strong LED lights and some sort of vertical farming apparatus, which could be a single plant grown and supported upwards to the roof of the building, or shelves of plants stacked on top of each other for maximum production. And that is the key focus of CEA—maximum, consistent production combined with sustainable, eco-friendly energy.

You could assume that a project like this would prioritize renewable resources such as wind and solar for the energy needed to maintain a greenhouse. However, the CEA systems in the Netherlands quickly realized that the most efficient, reliable solution involves a method called Combined Heat and Power.

According to the Department of Energy, Combined Heat & Power (CHP) is the process of producing electricity and thermal energy (used for heating or cooling) from the same source of energy. Also known as cogeneration, CHP can utilize both natural gas and renewable resources at the same time, but with an added bonus for greenhouses—plants need carbon dioxide to thrive. With CHP, the carbon dioxide created from burning the natural gas is recycled back into the root systems and can be used to stimulate plant growth.

Barry Kukovich, a member of Peoples’ Strategic Planning Group, explains how this combination of natural gas, renewable energy, and CHP is perfect for Controlled Environment Agriculture.

“Solar doesn’t produce carbon. Wind doesn’t produce carbon. But for a facility like this, you need the carbon dioxide,” he said. Kukovich adds that the idea of carbon dioxide being a good thing—a vital thing in this process—is a pretty difficult concept for people to wrap their heads around. But when you think of all of these different types of energy working together in a sustainable microgrid of energy, it’s easier to see the efficiencies and the overwhelming environmental benefits, especially in greenhouses with enormous demands for power.

There are several different methods for growing plants with CEA, mainly hydroponics, aeroponics, or aquaponics. Hydroponics is the method that gets the nutrients to the plant by sitting the plant in a solution of water and nutrients or fertilizer. Aeroponics has the plant’s roots exposed at the bottom, which are then regularly sprayed with nutrients. Lastly, aquaponics is virtually the same as hydroponics, except the nutrients are derived from fish (and fish waste) that are grown in the same site. Each method has its advantages, but Kukovich has a clear favorite.

“Personally, I’m much more in favor of an aquaponic site,” he said. “The nutrients are derived from fish, and you’re growing fish at the facility, and you’re processing fish waste, that’s all of the fertilizer that you’re driving into the plants. So, it’s all very natural that way. But also as the fish mature, you have them for a product as well.” Kukovich also sees aquaponics as potentially solving another planetary problem. A report from Scientific American stated that ocean fish numbers have been cut in half since 1970—and those numbers have continued to dwindle since that report was published in 2015.

“Our oceans are being fished out,” Kukovich said. “So, in a world that’s going from 7 billion to 10 billion mouths to feed, where are you going to get the fish? Where are you going to get the plants? So this is a more robust solution.”

Kukovich says that Peoples plans to partner with farmers in the Pittsburgh food shed to help save regional farms.

“If nothing changes, we’ll probably lose almost all of our farms within the next ten years in western Pennsylvania,” he said. Kukovich explained that building CEA facilities on existing farms, in suburban areas, and even in urban areas, is usually followed by a “ripple effect of job growth.”

“Any food distributor should have a stake in this. Any restaurant or restaurant chain should have a stake in this,” Kukovich explained. “Because you’re not only looking at producing the food, you’re looking at the distribution of the food and the use of it.” He stressed that while the introduction of new technology in other industries might cause disruption, these CEA and CHP partnerships would encourage local jobs and bring more food closer to home.

“If we would do nothing for ten years, all the farms would be gone. All the farms would be gone. That’s it,” he said emphatically. “So now is the time to start working with people and say, ‘Okay, how can we introduce this technology in tandem with what you’re already doing on your farm? You need more fertilizer—can we create a fish hatchery to produce that fertilizer on your farm? Can we use CHP to make that energy efficient and affordable?’”

As Peoples continues to explore applications of Combined Heat and Power technology in conjunction with Controlled Environment Agriculture, they’re using the Netherlands as an example in technology, innovation, and partnerships, to be sure. But there’s another factor that is guiding their process.

While the Netherlands started parts of the Food Valley system from the ground up, Peoples hopes to embrace and empower the existing local agriculture industry. “We have to be different than the Dutch model,” Kukovich pressed, “because one of our goals is to try to save local farmers.”  

Peoples sees these partnerships cropping up quickly, and hope to have CHP up and running in at least one CEA greenhouse by 2019. The goal is to showcase this partnership in a living, breathing farm, so that other farmers can see the potential. CHP can help farms to dramatically reduce their emissions, increase efficiency, and establish a reliable energy baseline that can be tied into renewable energy.

“The farmers have the experience and an unparalleled work ethic,” Kukovich said. “If we can give them creative opportunities combine their output, share in any CEO configurations, or help them with their distribution, this will be a tremendous step forward for environmentally-responsible agriculture, for food production, and for our region.” 

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