Behind the Smart Greenhouses


What do plants and solar panels have in common? It should be obvious – they convert sunlight into energy. Plants do this through photosynthesis, while solar panels use the photovoltaic process – but the end result is essentially the same. Humans can take advantage of both of these processes, leaving us with a form of energy we can use, whether it’s in the form of electricity or consumable nutrients. That’s all very well and good, but until now, no one has ever tried to take advantage of both processes simultaneously.

Well, what does that mean?

The question is simple: How do we harvest electricity and grow plants using the same rays of light? If you can visualize the process, the problem becomes obvious. “Traditional” solar panels block light from reaching the plants below. This was the major hurdle that Michael Loik knew he had to overcome. The environmental researcher at the University of California was trying to build a “smart greenhouse” that could generate electricity and crops at the same time.

In the end, his breakthrough came when he used revolutionary new solar panels called WSPVs, or “Wavelength-Selective Photovoltaic Systems.” These solar panels are different because they allow certain spectrums of light to pass through, and they’re also more energy-efficient and cheaper to run compared to other panels. Even if you’re not an expert on solar panels, you can easily tell that these models are unique because of their characteristic pink color.

Photo: BURST

Even though Micheal Loik was on the right track, he still needed to test his theory. Would the plants actually grow under this strange, pinkish light? To figure it out, he grew a variety of different crops in his greenhouses, including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, lemons, strawberries, and more. In total, the researcher grew 20 different plant varieties and discovered that about 80% of them grew just as well as they would have under normal conditions.

Here’s the real kicker:

Some plants actually grew better than they would have under normal conditions. Loik isn’t quite sure why 20% of his crops grew more efficiently, but it’s a mystery that deserves an answer. What makes it even more puzzling is that the WSPVs cause the plants to receive less light than they normally would.

Another key discovery was the fact that these plants required less water than those in a normal greenhouse – making these smart greenhouses even more efficient.

So let’s get this straight:

These smart greenhouses can be more productive in terms of plant growth, generate their own electricity, and require less water? It seems like Loik has created something that could seriously upgrade just about every greenhouse on the face of the Earth. Make no mistake, this could have a major effect on our carbon emissions.

Although greenhouses have a pretty stellar reputation in the world of sustainability, the truth is that they can drain tons of electricity. Many greenhouses require internal heating, lighting, monitoring, and irrigation systems. Theoretically, all of these energy requirements would be handled by the ceiling-mounted solar panels – making the greenhouse totally self-sufficient.

The color of the solar panels isn’t just pretty. The reddish shade is perfect for the flowering stage of most plants, as it simulates the spectrum of sunlight that fuels plants late in the growing season. The flowering stage is when plants actually start creating fruit or vegetables, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, or strawberries. Funnily enough, commercial grow lights have been using this reddish light to boost yields for years.

Photo: BURST

Testing

California was a great place to test these new greenhouses because of its climate. Swamp coolers and other energy-consuming components can draw electricity from the solar panels, and these WSPV’s can help greenhouses in tougher environments approach the “net zero” of energy efficiency.

The great thing about greenhouses is that they can run in just about any environment you can think of. That being said, both warmer and colder climates require greenhouses with additional electrical components (heaters or coolers) to create a stable setting for the plants. These new smart greenhouses could make it easier to grow food in areas of the globe with climates that would have the process unfeasible under normal circumstances. In the future, the Earth’s surface might be covered with these “2-in-1” farm/powerplant systems.

 


More about Jael Josevich

“I’m a writer with a passion for baking, coffee and all things Kristen Bell. Also a reluctant Taylor Swift fan who loves scary movies and is scared of everything.