Hunting for Treasure on the Farm

Exclusives from Urban Ag News

Strategically manage resources for greenhouse and indoor cultivation

By Gretchen Schimelpfenig, PE, Jennifer Amann

Food production is responsible for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Crop cultivation and supply chain processes require energy and generate associated carbon emissions. Greenhouses and vertical farms use diverse sources of energy like electricity, natural gas, propane, and gasoline depending on the facility type and the location.

The worldwide controlled environment agriculture (CEA) industry is growing rapidly in several crop categories. While CEA facilities use less land to grow more food with less waste, they can also demand more energy. Many states have goals to mitigate climate change by lowering greenhouse gas emissions from different sources and work with utilities and efficiency programs to help industrial operations reduce their energy use. As the CEA industry expands and more resources are consumed to drive production, businesses can establish more sustainable habits by adopting strategic energy management (SEM) practices. SEM is a data-driven, systemic process that enables organizations to save energy and make better use of their energy resources by establishing the foundation for continual energy efficiency improvement. In many states, efficiency programs  provide technical assistance and incentives to support operators pursuing SEM.

Resource Innovation Institute is a non-profit organization committed to cultivating a better future for all of humanity. Our consortium of members brings perspectives from across the field—uniting architects and engineers, growers and operators, researchers and analysts. Together, we measure, verify and celebrate the world’s most efficient agricultural ideas. In this article, RII’s Technical Director and members of the organization’s Technical Advisory Council working groups highlight several ways growers can optimize effectiveness of substrate and set facilities up for water circularity.

Efficiency takes many forms. Advanced equipment and automation can be a pathway, but technology strategies can require significant capital investments. Behavioral change is a powerful efficiency strategy that can cost very little in comparison. To reduce energy costs over time, SEM embeds efficiency into organizational culture to engage staff at all levels in controlling energy use. Ongoing monitoring of facility performance can eliminate unnecessary equipment upgrades, deliver incremental and persistent energy savings, and support more robust planning for capital investment projects.    

Efficiency programs offer free strategic energy management resources specialized for industrial customers so participants can learn from each other, receive dedicated coaching from energy experts, and achieve persistent energy savings. Participants in SEM programs in New York have seen 5 – 7% annual electric savings since 2017. The majority of programs use an established SEM framework such as ISO 50001, 50001 Ready, or the Consortium for Energy Efficiency’s SEM Minimum Elements to provide the program and participants with a structure to support development of SEM business practices. 

These approaches for continuous improvement apply across industries to help CEA operations reduce energy use and environmental impact. SEM coaches identify and recruit “energy champions” across departments to participate in “cohorts” of similar businesses, like manufacturers. Coaches work independently with staff and also invite them to participate in peer-to-peer learning opportunities with other cohort members. These opportunities include “treasure hunts”, site visits with cohort discussions, training, and identification of low-cost and no-cost changes to save energy and money. While some growers often cite proprietary growing processes and may not be open to site visits from perceived competitors, a ‘show and tell’ about experiences with emerging and high-performance technologies provides a strong and informed recommendation for efficiency. At treasure hunts, facility operators can share tips for adopting technology they have tried and learn from others who have incorporated strategies they are considering at their own business.

Benchmarking for Continuous Improvement

Energy champions can establish patterns of sustainable behaviors and actions to remain long after the SEM program is over. Benchmarking is the first step in continuous improvement. To verify the impact of behavioral changes, operations must measure resource efficiency before and after new strategies are deployed. Benchmarking is one of the best leverage points to help CEA producers adopt energy efficiency practices and validate the effectiveness of advanced equipment and automation. Benchmarking resource efficiency in buildings can result in 2.4% annual energy savings according to the US EPA and complements other strategies like efficient technology and strategic energy management.

Energy champions can use benchmarking to ‘step on the scale’ to validate the performance of their operation, increase their knowledge and understanding of technologies and their benefits, and demonstrate success through analysis of key performance indicators (KPIs) and case studies. Widespread benchmarking of a diverse range of production approaches and facility types in many locations can emphasize certain efficiency benefits based on size and method of cultivation and help producers have a better understanding and value for the benefits of efficiency. 

There are not many benchmarking tools specialized for greenhouses and indoor cultivation facilities. The USDA wants that to change, and funded RII to expand the PowerScore resource benchmarking platform to serve CEA operations growing diverse food, floriculture, and hemp products. PowerScore calculates KPIs for efficiency and productivity of energy, water, and emissions.

Increasing Efficiency Program Support

Performance-based incentives are offered to CEA producers by efficiency programs in ten states. Expanded outreach and education can support the inclusion of CEA in SEM programs offered across the country. Program administrators report broad satisfaction with the cost-effectiveness and persistence of savings from SEM programs targeted to other industrial customers, but may not be aware of savings opportunities in CEA facilities. The North American SEM Collaborative supports a growing community of practice with research, training, regional coordination, and resources to engage utility and other efficiency programs with opportunities to expand implementation of SEM. 

Growers across America need more incentives for strategic energy management. RII is working with the Utility Working Group of our Technical Advisory Council to encourage efficiency programs to launch more pilot SEM programs for CEA and create cohorts for greenhouses and indoor vertical farms. In February, RII will release our latest best practices guide for CEA efficiency programs funded by the USDA. In March, RII and members of the Utility Working Group will share highlights from the guide at a live workshop which will also be available for streaming on-demand on RII’s catalog.

About the Authors

As Technical & Operations Director of RII, Gretchen manages the PowerScore resource benchmarking platform, facilitates RII’s Technical Advisory Council Working Groups and creates curriculum and training to educate producers, efficiency programs, and design and construction communities. She works with members and subject matter experts to publish best practices guidance for production of plants in controlled environments, develops and delivers curriculum, and supports PowerScore users with resource benchmarking analysis and reporting compliance. Schimelpfenig writes for industry publications and is a columnist for GIE Media and Meister Media and publishes in Greenhouse Grower, Greenhouse Management, Cannabis Business Times, and the Cultivation Classroom column for Cannabis Science & Technology. Gretchen grows vine crops and herbs in her veggie garden, greenhouse, and basement in her Vermont farmhouse and is constantly using her HVAC and lighting knowledge to optimize her grow environments.

Jennifer Amann is a Senior Fellow with the  American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). Jennifer also serves on the Board of Directors of the Resource Innovation Institute. In this role, she develops and supports strategic directions for ACEEE’s work to improve efficiency in homes and commercial buildings. Since joining ACEEE in 1997, she has written and presented extensively on efficiency technologies, policies, and programs. Her current work focuses on deep retrofits and building decarbonization, energy affordability, and emerging opportunities in buildings and controlled environment agriculture. 

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