Greenhouses to get greener through research project

Farmers learn ways to boost yields, cut costs
Lettuce is shown growing under various types of artificial light June 5, 2017, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.
Lettuce is shown growing under various types of artificial light June 5, 2017, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.

TROY — It will be easier for New York farmers to be green while growing greenhouse greens, thanks to the work of a consortium of researchers.

They might save a little of the green stuff, too.

The state announced a strategic plan to help farmers increase energy efficiency and reduce their carbon emissions, during a presentation Monday at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. RPI, Cornell University and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority have joined to form the new Greenhouse Lighting and Systems Engineering consortium.

A main focus of Monday’s presentation was greenhouses, as a key goal of GLASE is to change the way greenhouses are operated. They are important pieces of equipment for New York farmers, who have about 720 total acres under glass, allowing them to extend their growing seasons. They’re also very expensive to operate, which is where the research being done by GLASE comes in: The goal is to reduce greenhouse electricity use by 70 percent while still increasing crop yield.

It’s a seven-year, $5 million project that chases the promise of more and better locally grown vegetables available for more of the year in New York state. RPI cited federal figures showing a 10.6 percent annual increase in New York greenhouse production of lettuce and tomatoes from 2007 through 2012.

An array of lettuce plants was on display Monday, each grown at RPI with a different highly efficient light source. Their colors were visibly different, and their textures were noticeably different. What wasn’t immediately obvious is that their nutrient levels also are different: It’s possible to fine-tune the nutritional content of vegetables by manipulating the spectrum of light falling on them.

Richard Ball, of Schoharie, the state commissioner of agriculture and markets, was among those present, and he said the research being done is beneficial not just for energy savings, but for the possibilities it offers to growers.

“I’m also excited because I’m a farmer,” he said.

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Richard Ball, commissioner of agriculture and markets for New York state, speaks Monday, June 5, 2017, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. (John Cropley)

Plant physiology expert Tessa Pocock, a senior research scientist at RPI’s Center for Lighting Enabled Systems & Applications, and Neil Mattson, associate professor in the horticulture section of the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell, will collaborate to demonstrate a holistic greenhouse energy management system that integrates control of LED lighting, carbon dioxide supplementation, ventilation and humidity.

Mattson said said new technology allows growers to provide optimal lighting — even as conditions change throughout the day — using reactive LED lights to maximize yield per kilowatt of electricity used.

More than 30 potential participants have expressed interest in joining GLASE, including growers, lighting and fixture manufacturers, trade groups, supermarket produce buyers, horticultural suppliers and research organizations. 


Also announced Monday at RPI was the Clean Energy for Agriculture Task Force Strategic Plan, a larger group led by NYSERDA and the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Key initiatives contained in the strategic plan are:

  • Expand outreach to deliver clean energy information to the agricultural community.
  • Expand financial, operational and legal resources to support expansion of community-based development of renewable resources.
  • Identify, evaluate and develop recommendations to get better value from farm-based renewable energy.
  • Provide information and coaching for existing and prospective anaerobic digestion projects, which generate gas from manure.
  • Develop an energy-related farm management best practices guide.

It’s all part of the state’s Reforming the Energy Vision plan, which calls for the state to generate 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050 (as compared with 1990). The state is renewing its embrace of clean energy in the face of the current White House administration’s policies, which have been at odds at times. 

“The Clean Energy for Agriculture Task Force will bolster the role of New York’s farmers in the state’s nation-leading transition to renewable energy and our efforts to reduce methane emissions,” Basil Seggos, the state commissioner of Environmental Conservation, said in a prepared statement.

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