Vertical Farming gets ready to Grow

by John Brian Shannon.

Brooklyn Grange, a one acre urban farm on top of industrial 6 story industrial building in the Long Island City neighbourhood of Queens.
Brooklyn Grange is a 1-acre farm on top of an industrial 6-story building in New York City. Plans are on to lease some of the top floors which will turn Brooklyn Grange into a true Vertical Farm – as opposed to an outdoor rooftop farm. brooklyngrangefarm.com

Vertical Farming to increase local food production in cities

As the global population tracks toward 10 billion by 2060 and evermore potential farmland is scooped up by developers for residences, commercial buildings and industrial use, vertical farming looks to be a viable way to grow fruits and vegetables within cities — as opposed to hundreds or thousands of miles away.

According to the UN, the combined land area under agricultural land management on the planet is equal in size to the entire South American continent. Before 2060, an additional land area the size of Brazil will be required to grow crops for human consumption and to grow feed for livestock if we continue to employ present agriculture policies. Only the best land can be used for agriculture or the crops simply fail, while livestock underperform in sub-optimal conditions.

Finding more locations with acceptable levels of rainfall and sunshine, nutrient-rich well-drained soil, and the proper topographical profile will become even more of a challenge in the coming years. Of prime importance for food producers is the location of farming and ranching operations as spoilage/shipping costs often soar with increased distance-to-market.

Potential to Save billions of gallons of water

The huge water capacity required for conventional agriculture and ranching is a major issue. Extremely high levels of water usage result in high costs for farmers which are then passed on to consumers. Soil erosion, water shortages, and massive contamination of waterways are also significant and growing problems. Unimaginable quantities of water are required for crops to flourish, while astonishing water loss rates due to evaporation and fertilizer/pesticide runoff polluting our rivers and coastal areas now rank among our most serious marine pollution problems.

In Arizona, it takes an average of 25 gallons of water to grow one head of Romaine lettuce. In California, growing a head of Romaine lettuce requires 20 gallons of water. In the vertical farming scenario, growing one head of Romaine lettuce uses only .33 of a gallon, and with zero pesticide use involved and no losses to wildlife/drought/flooding. 

You might not think it, but agriculture is one of the most studied sectors on the planet. Even NASA is involved. Data is downloaded from high-tech NASA satellites and is made available to farmers and ranchers on a daily basis. Radar, thermal imaging and weather satellites all contribute their datasets to help the people who grow our food, to produce even more. And it works. Almost every year, the U.S., Canada and Europe show a larger ‘bumper crop’ than the year before.

All of these factors however, conspire to add to the final price that consumers pay. This means that we have a system that works, as it produces plenty of food and crop yields seem to increase every year. But it is extraordinarily expensive. Let’s review (conventional production method) costs that affect the final price at the market.

  • Entire satellite systems and government departments devoted to enhancing crop yields.
  • Massive transportation systems to move and warehouse food.
  • Obscene levels of water consumption/wastage.
  • Highly contaminated water runoff into formerly pristine rivers/lakes/coastal ocean areas.
  • High rates of food spoilage during transportation/storage (up to 30% in some countries).
  • Land contamination and degradation, including soil erosion.
  • Loss of natural habitat for wildlife.
  • Loss of land for human uses, such as homes, or sport & recreation.
  • Gigatonnes of fertilizers and pesticides which are derived from highly-refined petroleum.
  • Price spikes due to extreme weather events such as drought, hurricane/typhoon, flooding.
  • Expensive GMO technology to combat natural pests and weather challenges.
  • Huge research budgets (government, industry and academia) to solve crop failure/livestock disease problems.
  • Chemical sprays or radiation treatment (irradiation) to control bacteria prior to transport or storage.

Vertical Farming to lower food costs for consumers

Vertical farming adroitly bypasses all of the above problems and more by producing food (and small livestock) very close to, or within population centres. In the vertical farming scenario, all of the food produced is consumed locally, thereby negating the need for warehousing, trans-ocean shipping, trans-national rail, producer-to-city and city-to-city trucking.

Food spoilage/wastage is dramatically lowered due to the rapid delivery times that are possible when delivering ultra-fresh produce within one city — as compared to shipping/warehousing produce grown hundreds or thousands of miles away.

No multi-billion dollar NASA satellite systems required! No loss of animal or human habitat, no polluted waterways, no GMO’s, no price spikes. Perhaps most profoundly of all, millions of gallons of water per hectare/per season are no longer required, thereby freeing up that water for human consumption, for use by fish and wildlife, and for hydro-electric power production. Some rivers in the United States have stopped flowing their historic route to the sea, as ALL of the water in the watershed gets diverted for farming and ranching use long before it reaches the ocean. Bad for the fish that once lived in those river systems too.

Can you think of a better use for vacant office towers than hydroponic food growing operations?

Lower pollution levels due to dramatically lower transportation mileage (per megatonne of produce) is just one reason why governments may want to assist with startup funding for such operations. Want another reason? Many more local jobs will be produced — permanent jobs that can never be outsourced to another state or country.

Yet another benefit concerns grocery store operators; Fresh, undamaged produce that is only one-day away from their store shelves. “The Bridge is Out” or “Snow Closes Highway” or “Train Derailment Blocks Access to Town” — all of these types of news headlines are non-problems for Vertical Farming operations, grocery stores, and the customers who rely on the stores.

Vertical Farming Quiz: Did you know?

  • In the United States most food travels an average of 1500 miles from producer to consumer
  • Indoor hydroponic farming uses 80% less water than conventional farming techniques
  • Vertical farming operations filter massive amounts of pollutants out of city air
  • Vertical farming continuously recycles the water it requires

Some foresighted organizations have already embarked on such projects. In Milan Italy, they are building purpose-built concrete highrise residential buildings with a forest as part of the architecture. Milan’s attempt to clean that city’s incredibly polluted air now include an outdoor vertical forest — equal to a natural forest 1-hectare in size — that will purge tonnes of pollutants and particulates from city air. Bosco Verticale (see below) is Milan’s first such project.

Bosco Verticale. Milan, Italy.
Bosco Verticale. Milan, Italy. (This two-building complex will be ready for Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy)

 

Vertical farming, offices and residences combined. Urban cactus Rotterdam, Netherlands
Vertical farming, offices and residences combined. Urban Cactus, Rotterdam, Netherlands. (This combined luxury office tower and residential suites complex is already complete and occupied)

Vertical farming image for illustrative purposes only. Vertical farming by Chris Jacobs
Artistic rendering of a Vertical Farming purpose-built building. ‘Vertical farming’ by Chris Jacobs. (Cylindrical building shape allows more natural light to fall on the plants)

Additional Vertical Farming information:

Working Vertical Farming operations:

Vertical forest/office tower/residences/air pollution mitigation system, under construction:

Future Urban Farming Event:

  • International Conference on Vertical Farming and Urban Agriculture 2014 (click here to visit website). September 9-10, 2014 at the University Of Nottingham, UK

Follow John Brian Shannon on Twitter at: @EVcentral

Where does our energy go? Follow the money!

by John Brian Shannon.

Some 16 Terawatts of energy of all kinds, were produced and consumed in 2009 by our civilization, and experts tell us that we will demand 28 Terawatts per year by 2050. An example of energy demand is the electricity that flows into our homes and businesses. Another example is the fuel we use in our vehicles. Still another is what powers our global industrial sector.

Of the energy produced and consumed by our 21st century civilization, approximately one-third is used for transportation.

The cars we drive, the transport trucks and trains that haul our freight, and the airlines and shipping lines that transport us and our goods around the world, are all part of what we call the transportation sector. The vast majority of these vehicles use petroleum fuels to provide the motive power. Fuels such as gasoline, diesel, aviation fuel/kerosene, bunker fuel and other fuels, produce plenty of CO2, toxic emissions, particulate matter, and soot.

Of the three categories of energy users, the transportation sector is easily the ‘dirtiest-third’ and contributes the largest share of atmospheric emissions.

Another third (approx.) of total demand is consumed by industry and like the transportation sector, contributes large amounts of pollution to our atmosphere. Depending where you live in the world, the environmental effects of that pollution can range from negligible to toxic.

The last third (approx.) of demand is used to power residential buildings, commercial buildings, and various levels of government infrastructure. When you turn on the lights or heat in a building, or look at illuminated signs and streetlights on your way to your local air-conditioned shopping mall — each is an example of residential, commercial, and government energy users.

A question arises; Which of the three categories can lower their emissions at reasonable cost?

In all three categories, not using the energy in the first place is the best way to lower costs and emissions. Energy conservation beats everything else, hands down, every time.

For example, no matter how cleanly your car operates for each mile you drive it — for each mile that you don’t drive it, the car produces zero emissions. The same holds true for cities that shut off every second streetlight after midnight. No matter how efficient streetlights are these days, they still use less power turned OFF — when compared to ON.

Energy conservation differs from efficient energy use, which refers to using less energy for a constant service. For example, driving less is an example of energy conservation. Driving the same amount with a higher mileage (MPG) vehicle is an example of energy efficiency. Energy conservation and efficiency are both energy reduction techniques.

Energy conservation reduces energy services, it can result in increased, environmental quality, national security, and personal financial security. It is at the top of the sustainable energy hierarchy. — Wikipedia

For decades, very little research went into increasing efficiency or adding conservation measures in residential and commercial buildings.

Until the 1980’s, electricity wastage for commercial buildings and residential buildings was often over 80% and little attention was paid to building efficiency or conservation — back in the days of cheap electrical power — but great progress is now being made in efficient buildings and conservation as a way for building owners to reduce operating costs.

One of the most cost-effective ways to reduce overhead and to help lower emissions in buildings, is to employ efficiency and conservation measures, and to source electricity from clean, renewable energy for our residential/commercial buildings and government infrastructure. Efficiency and conservation can save building owners millions of dollars per year with rapid return on investment (ROI).

Example of a green building in Washington DC. Image via Progressive Times
A ‘green building’ in Washington DC. This office building is a LEED Certified building that uses efficiency and conservation to dramatically minimize its environmental footprint and reduce costs. Image via Progressive Times

Some buildings are notorious for their heavy electrical demand. For example, some large U.S. shopping malls have utility bills of $1 million dollars per month. Retrofitting such commercial buildings in order to save up to 80% on their monthly electricity bill has become a huge business in the United States and there is every possibility of this happening globally, as electricity costs are expected to rise (and in some regions, rise steeply) in the years ahead.

Get used to hearing the terms efficient buildings, conservation, and LEED Certification, as these represent a global multi-trillion dollar opportunity for retrofit companies, building systems equipment manufacturers and engineering firms. At the same time, opportunities for building owners to lower their electricity, water and sewage expenses by orders of magnitude — with swift payback on efficiency and conservation spending — via large reductions in operating expenses.

Some building owners may opt for a light efficiency and conservation retrofit, while others choose the so-called Deep Energy Retrofit which is applicable to commercial buildings and forecasts savings of greater than 50% will result from such efficiency and conservation upgrades.

Commercial Building RetroFit Initiative (USA)

Who would have thought retrofitting the 6,514 operable windows of the Empire State building on the 5th floor, for energy efficiency, would be time- or cost-effective?

But it was.

Retrofitting existing commercial buildings for energy efficiency is one of the greatest opportunities facing the building industry. If our existing buildings in the U.S. were a nation, its energy consumption would rank third after China and the U.S. More than a trillion dollars is currently flowing out of our buildings in the form of wasted energy.

Eighty percent of the today’s commercial square footage will be standing and operating in 2030. We estimate a conservative $1.4 trillion dollar value to be gained over the next 40 years from intervening with deep energy retrofits using whole systems design. — Rocky Mountain Institute

One stellar example of a government leading the way for consumers, for commercial building operators, and for industry, is Washington DC. Under the leadership of Mayor Vincent C. Gray, the city set a great example for other cities. Washington DC is a thought and action leader on green buildings, efficiency and conservation, renewables, and sustainable development.

The Living Building Challenge is part of numerous efforts by the city to reach Mayor Gray’s “Sustainable DC” initiative, which includes 11 key categories for environmental/fiscal improvement. The categories include goals such as cutting the energy consumption of the entire city by half, being able to bring in locally grown food within a quarter mile of the city and have it consumed by 75 percent of D.C. residents, as well as tripling the number of small businesses within the city. — Carl Pierre, InTheCapital.com excerpted from D.C. is Planning its First Self-Sustaining, ‘Living Building’

As more than 50% of the world’s citizens presently live in cities (70% by 2050, according to the WHO) it makes sense to ramp-up efforts on efficiency and conservation in cities — where much of the transportation sector operates, where there is an active industrial sector, and where there are large numbers of commercial/residential buildings and government infrastructures.

Washington DC, San Francisco, New York, and other cities are leading the world with their great examples.

What can you do to help add efficiency and conserve power in your home, commercial building, or industry?

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Here are some helpful efficiency and conservation information links, courtesy of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, Washington State.

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington state, is an excellent example of efficiency and conservation measures at work to save money for the building owner/operators. Photo credit: J. Housel

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) comprises a campus with several buildings with 532,602 square feet of floor space in Seattle, Washington. The facility was built from 1990 to 2004 and has won numerous awards for energy efficiency because of its original design but also because of its ongoing efficiency programs. For example, FHCRC staffs recommission all air-handlers, controls, and electrical equipment every two years in partnership with the controls system provider, Siemens Building Technology.

Campus maintenance is managed full time by a team of three professionals. In 2000, for example, this team performed more than 1,500 preventative maintenance operations. The performance of campus buildings is the subject of a Labs-21 case study titled Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, WashingtonPDF.

Other examples of campuses with good maintenance and energy management programs include the following.

Follow John Brian Shannon on Twitter at: @EVcentral