Indoor farm will tap solar microgrid to keep plants growing year round
Written By Bill Opalka By U.S. Department of Agriculture Creative Commons
Bowery Farming’s New Jersey factory will include energy storage, solar panels, and on-site gas generation.
A solar-powered microgrid will soon help an urban agriculture startup grow vegetable greens inside a converted New Jersey warehouse.
Bowery Farming’s Kearny, New Jersey, facility will grow lettuce, kale and up to 100 varieties of plants, all indoors in a carefully controlled climate backed up by batteries, solar panels, on-site gas generators and technology that allows it to operate independently from the electric grid in the event of an outage or other disruptions.
“It’s really a manufacturing center with a high cost of energy in a very controlled environment,” said Don Wingate, vice president for utility and microgrid solutions with Schneider Electric, a Chicago-based company providing much of the infrastructure, controls and software for the high-tech food factory.
The microgrid will be built, owned and operated by Scale Microgrid Solutions, whose CEO Ryan Goodman said the platform is similar to what is offered in its standardized product, but it’s a first for this type of use.
“I believe no one has ever done microgrids in the indoor agricultural space like we’re doing here,” Goodman said. “There are some differences, but primarily they’re related to the load profile and how we’re using the assets.”
Microgrids are becoming increasingly popular to support uninterrupted operation of critical infrastructure like emergency and public safety buildings, hospitals, and sites that need a guaranteed power supply like data centers. In an agricultural setting, especially in the Northeast with hot summers and colder winters with shorter days, a stable, climate-controlled environment is required for plants that thrive in moderate temperatures.
The farm will run on grid power for part of its needs. Solar will provide about 15 percent of the energy required. The natural gas generator and batteries will provide the rest.
“Our assets can do a bunch of things, but in this case our natural gas product and the battery help primarily to manage peak loads,” Goodman said.
‘I believe no one has ever done microgrids in the indoor agricultural space like we’re doing here.’
The load profile is advantageous, as solar energy production peaks as overall grid demand rises and energy costs increase. Power stored in the on-site batteries could then be released to lower demand from the grid.
Goodman said the system will use the three assets in an optimal way, based on the load profile and the value proposition presented by opportunities for peak shaving and demand response.
“Generically, a solution like this would provide a 20 or 30 percent savings in energy consumption from the normal cost structure of a similar facility,” Goodman said.
Technically, the Scale system is capable of dispatching power back to the grid, but there are no plans to do that now.
The system includes Schneider Electric’s lithium-ion battery energy storage system interconnected in a behind-the-meter configuration.
“This new industry of indoor agriculture is really meaningful to society and us being able to partner in a project like this, to make repeatable solutions to make energy use much more efficient and more affordable, makes this much more exciting,” Wingate said. Schneider says it has a stable of more than 300 microgrid projects in the U.S.
Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure Microgrid Advisor is a cloud-connected, demand-side energy management software platform that will be integrated to optimize the system’s performance. Its top layer includes cloud-connected demand side energy software that looks at current electric rate tariffs as part of its process to optimize energy use and make informed suggestions to the system. That advanced microgrid solution operates seamlessly and faster than any human being could to intervene.
The infrastructure can be built to scale and added to as necessary, Wingate said.
“As microgrids have become more cost-efficient and simpler, it’s more affordable to phase in additional pieces without having to re-engineer the entire system from the beginning,” he added.
Bowery said the indoor farm will be in production all year in a hydroponic system that uses 95 percent less water than plants grown by traditional methods out of doors. It claims crop cycles are twice as fast as traditional farming and its land footprint is 100 times less than outdoor agriculture.
The company hopes to expand to other metropolitan regions so crops can be delivered promptly to its markets. Bowery would not say how many new farms it plans or their locations.
“We’re looking forward to continuing to provide consumers with access to local, high-quality produce and drive a more sustainable future,” said Brian Donato, senior vice president for operations at Bowery Farming.
Commissioning of the Bowery microgrid project is scheduled for the first quarter of 2019.