Are Solar-Powered Greenhouses the Way Forward?

Greenhouses specially engineered to incorporate solar panels appear to grow vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers just as well as their more typical counterparts — and with some added benefits.

Researchers from UC Santa Cruz demonstrated that†electricity generation from solar power can be made more cost effective and resource efficient by combining solar energy generating panels with greenhouse technology to grow crops. The scientists tell of their success in a new study published†in the†American Geophysical Union’s journal “Earth’s Future.”

“We have demonstrated that ‘smart greenhouses’ can capture solar energy for electricity without reducing plant growth, which is pretty exciting,” Michael Loik, professor of environmental studies,†explained†in a release.†”…If greenhouses generate electricity on site, that reduces the need for an outside source, which helps lower greenhouse gas emissions even more. We’re moving toward self-sustaining greenhouses.”

This isn’t actually a new idea, but†it is a new approach that comes with some interesting scientific ideas.

In this study, the glass houses were fitted with transparent roof panels that housed a magenta luminescent dye. The dye absorbs light and can transfer energy to narrow photovoltaic strips†also embedded in the greenhouse’s structure. Because these panels only absorb certain wavelengths of light, some of the light spectrum still reaches the plants in the greenhouse — thereby enabling them to grow even as energy is generated by the panels.

To test the effectiveness of this system, the researchers attempted to grow 20 different varieties of produce including tomatoes, cucumbers, lemons, limes, peppers, strawberries and basil plants. Concerns that the slightly darker growing conditions under the magenta panels might hinder growth proved unfounded, as 80 percent of the plants grew totally within normal expectations.

Meanwhile, 20 percent of the crops actually performed better. For example the tomato plants appeared to require less water in this system.

As tomatoes and cucumbers are among the most frequently reared plants in greenhouse conditions, this research†should be of interest to the wider farming industry.†And the findings are especially†important, given that greenhouses are increasingly being used in places like Canada and China in order to rear crops.†This uptick in greenhouse use is likely to continue as climate change takes hold and†producers seek ways to control†growing environments and make them as efficient and hospitable as possible.

Catching up to this upsurge in greenhouse use and getting greenhouses off the electric grid, therefore, offers one way to†reduce both costs†andenvironmental impact.

As this video†featuring the researchers explains, this greenhouse system might also help†with†water conservation:

Even so, this technology will not solve all the problems associated with†cultivating certain crops under greenhouse conditions. For example, land†must†be cleared in order to create intensive rearing operations of any kind, and this can be highly detrimental to local biodiversity.

These†challenges are not insurmountable, however, and they†shouldn’t detract from this technology’s promise. Solar energy-harnessing greenhouses represent a means of providing farming capabilities to broad sectors of society — including those in poorer nations†with compromised access to electricity.

That prospect is certainly exciting, and it could potentially be a†major†victory for global development if the results†observed in this small trial hold up on a bigger scale.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

91 comments

Marie W
Marie W3 months ago

Thank you!

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Fiona O
Fiona Ogilvie5 months ago

Great idea..plan to share it on twitter. Thanks for sharing.

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Chad A
Chad A6 months ago

Nice!

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Janet B
Janet B7 months ago

Thanks

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DAVID fleming
Dave fleming7 months ago

Very good read

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David Thieke
David T7 months ago

Good article. I would think solar powered greenhouses are the way to go. My wife and I had solar panels installed on our roof a year and a half ago, and we saved over $ 100 a month on our utility bills ! During the summer months we now pay zero dollars for energy. Solar is definitely the way to go, even if it's just for economic reasons, aside from the obvious environmental benefits, which are enormous. Thanks for sharing this article !

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Ellen J
Ellen J7 months ago

My grandfather had greenhouses. Not with solar panels as they didn't exist yet, but he reaped the benefits of glass, shades, and being able to open the windows. He for the 1940s-60s had a very advanced greenhouse system. Good to read that they have gone even further! Very interesting article. Thank you.

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Mike R
Mike R7 months ago

Thanks

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Mike R
Mike R7 months ago

Thanks

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Jessica C
Jess C7 months ago

Thank you!

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