The rise of smart agtech in indoor farming lighting
Saving energy is just the beginning
July 27, 2022 By Bryan Fried
July 15, 2022 – Indoor farming is booming! Grand View Research—a market research and consulting company—estimates the global market will expand to USD $75.3-billion by 2028.
Its research also finds that indoor farming increases crop yield while reducing both the land required to grow plants and the distance travelled to get product to market (as compared to traditional farming methods).
Despite this projection, high energy costs remain an important obstacle to market growth. With up to 65% of an indoor farm’s operational budget spent on energy, reducing energy costs wherever possible will provide tangible benefits for farmers, consumers, and the environment.
We cannot rely on the sun
Natural sunlight is helpful for growing any plant, including hemp, in a conventional greenhouse. The presence and level of sunlight offsets the need for any artificial light; conversely, insufficient sunlight must be augmented with artificial light sources. Also, not all grows are located in greenhouses: farming environments that feature multi-level, vertical configurations cannot use natural sunlight, and must rely completely on commercial lighting sources for their plants.
LED lighting is well-known for its energy efficiency but, prior to 2010, the high cost of white LED diodes made commercial LED lighting impractical for widespread use. Those diodes were simply too expensive for the market as compared to HID (high-intensity discharge) light sources.
Beginning in 2010, however, several LED diode manufacturers began offering diodes at prices that allowed LED lighting products to become competitive with HID. In addition, the lumen output and efficacy of the diodes had increased to the point where light levels met the basic requirements required by many lighting specifiers.
This changed everything, and paved the way to widespread adoption of LED lighting, saving businesses, commercial and industrial projects significant energy costs.
Indoor growers head toward LED lighting
Today, the lighting industry is driving cost-saving innovation though smart technology/software that automates operations, collects data points and provides real-time analysis. For example, indoor grow lights can detect air flows, automatically adjust light intensity based on the amount of sunlight the plants would be receiving outdoors, measure temperature and moisture levels, alongside dozens of other data points.
Indoor farmers lean toward LED light sources due to their reduced energy consumption as compared to other sources. They also provide a “more even” light, allowing growers to improve yields, lower HVAC costs and reduce overall electricity expenses.
When paired with sensors and analytics, growers can optimize their crops to a degree that wasn’t possible just a few years ago. When paired with a wireless operations system, LED lights can enable growers to control indoor factors such as temperature and humidity, or to customize the light spectrum per plant variant.
In a non-technology-augmented grow environment, successful grow “recipes” are typically documented manually by the grower. Repeating a successful grow, then, relies upon the quality and clarity of the grower’s notes. Non-conforming events in the grow—such as out-of-range temperature, humidity, soil moisture content, or PAR (photosynthetic active radiation) levels—must be manually detected.
Every time the grower enters the grow microclimate—even to take key measurements—a climate disruption occurs.
With a technology-based system, the metrics that lead to a potentially successful grow recipe are automatically recorded by sensors and analyzed against results. Repeating a successful grow, then, only requires calling up that specific recipe from the platform. During the grow cycle, any metric that is out of range can be immediately detected.
When the process is automated, a device—and notification—can be automatically triggered to both draw attention to, and correct, the non-conforming situation.
Certain plants grow best under specific lighting cycles and PAR levels. These cycles can be recorded and programmed into the technology platform and triggered automatically. PAR levels from the lights can be determined with a PAR sensor, and light levels can be automatically adjusted in the software to achieve the optimal setting at the right time.
Grow results can be analyzed by reviewing the data recorded to determine those settings. In this fashion, lighting requirements in a grow can be automatically monitored at constant intervals without the potential for human error. This is true for all aspects of the grow.
Customization is extremely important to indoor farmers. Unlike lighting of the past, wireless technology gives farmers control of each individual light source; meaning, a farmer can control the lighting in zones of any scale for any plant variety.
LED in action with hemp grower
HMP is the largest hemp farm operation in Utah. When undertaking an upgrade and expansion of its facilities, the indoor grow farmer was aware that the local utility would provide rebates for LED lighting products. RapidGrow, a subsidiary of Pangea, engaged its rebate team on behalf of HMP to determine both the maximum possible rebate, and the necessary requirements for that rebate. The extent of HMP’s options, then, were determined by this team.
The process included a photometric layout of the proposed grow environment and an analysis of the energy usage versus the lighting and PAR requirements. In less than than a month, it was determined that pairing a monitor & control software platform with an LED lighting backbone met the requirements needed to earn the utility’s maximum rebate. (The most important requirement was having individual control over each light source for maximum energy efficiency.)
Afterward, fixtures were manufactured according to a production plan and installed to operate HMP’s multi-phased, 100,000-sf hemp cultivation space.
The 1120-light footprint uses 480V power sources, daisy-chained together to reduce the number of drops, saving time and lowering installation costs. Installation was further simplified by installing these power sources away from the light sources. The power source location and software also reduces heat generation in the canopy growing area, providing a well-controlled grow environment.
The software platform is configured to control individual groups of fixtures, allowing HMP operators to set distinct schedules and better coordinate daylight harvesting, further lowering the energy requirements for each plant grouping.
Carried out by RapidGrow personnel, commissioning involved simply associating a light source—each with its own unique MAC address—with a control in the software platform. Once that was association was established, each wireless light source was immediately functional.
Sensors operate in the same manner, each sending data wirelessly to a gateway that is part of the platform. Here, commissioning only required associating that sensor with the control on the platform.
HMP rebate goes from Min to Max
The indoor grow farm sought to maximize its rebates while improving its LED lighting capabilities and reducing energy costs.
In the end, HMP’s system met all of the utility’s rebate requirements, including automated daylight controls, spectral tuning corresponding to the plants’ growth phase, and advanced scheduling that optimizes light runtime.
Because of this achievement, HMP increased its initial rebates by 37%, from $336,000 to $537,000 and, to this day, continues to derive grow benefits from its lighting-enabled smart system.
Bryan Fried is the chair and CEO of Pangea Global Technologies, a technology solutions provider and manufacturer of LED lighting. He has spent his entire career in manufacturing and distribution, serving in executive-level roles at Custom Graphic Communications, Sorg Corp., Professional Lithographics, Allenbach Industries, and Bertlesmann AG. Fried is also a certified examiner for the California Council for Quality & Service, administering the U.S. Senate Productivity Award.
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