James Eaves, Director Indoor Agriculture at VoltServer™ tells Indoor AgTech about what he’s excited about in the CEA space, the challenges of this fast-growing industry and the benefits of providing Digital Electricity™ for indoor farms.
A vertical farm’s core differentiation is the ability to create many unique and consistent growing environments within the same facility that can be rapidly reconfigured in response to changing market conditions, regardless of the weather. This flexibility advantage is achieved primarily by replacing natural inputs using lots of electrical equipment and electricity. The cost of that electrical distribution infrastructure can exceed 30% of total construction costs, while the cost of purchasing electricity is the first or second highest OPEX item, depending on the level of automation.
There are environmental costs as well. Not only can the electricity increase the carbon footprint of producing food, the hundreds to thousands of tons of electrical equipment are comprised of some of the most carbon-embodied materials in the world, like steel, aluminum, copper, and rubber. Embodied carbon of building materials accounts for around 11% of GHG emissions according to the U.N.
What is Digital Electricity™ (DE)?
Digital Electricity™ (DE) is the first new form of electricity since the invention of AC and DC power. For the first time in history, the electrical system knows when a person is touching a live, exposed wire, and it automatically stops sending power before that person can be injured. Because of that safety feature, DE is the only source of high voltage power that is classified as a “Limited Power Source.” That means it can be installed using the same wiring methods used for ethernet cable, enabling companies to distribute power using a fraction of the labor typically required.
How does a CEA producer use DE?
DE works by installing intelligent power supplies in an electrical room. These power supplies not only replace the drivers that are typically located on or near LEDs in grow spaces, but they also transform the electricity coming from the utility into a safe form of power. So, a company can distribute power to LEDs or PLC panels using 18-gauge cable in cable trays rather than in conduit. This dramatically reduces the cost and time for distributing power.
DE is also more reliable. For instance, because the LEDs’ drivers are the most common fail-point, moving them from humid environments to an electrical room extends the product’s life. This also removes heat and space-consuming equipment from the growing space. DE is intelligent, giving the grower the ability to schedule and monitor every individual piece of equipment powered by DE.
Finally, there are substantial environmental benefits. Because a DE system’s efficiency is up to 6% more efficient than a traditional AC system, large growers save money but also eliminate thousands of tons of CO2 emissions. Second, a DE powered system requires hundreds of tons less material, significantly reducing a facilities carbon footprint.
A vertical farms flexibility-advantage is paid for with higher capital and electricity costs. It is imperative that vertical farmers maximize the ROI of that investment by learning how to fully utilize their equipment and that flexibility to produce as many profitable SKUs as possible. Not only does DE reduce CAPX and OPEX costs, but also provides unprecedented levels of control.
UN Environmental Global status report 2012, EIA International Energy Outlook 2017
James will deliver a presentation at the Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit in New York on ‘Taking Economic Advantage of Environmental Control in Horticulture: Key Learnings From the Past’ on June 23 at 12.20pm EST. See the full program of live session here.