A Growing Concern for Indoor Farming: Lightbulbs

Laura Reiley reported on the front page of today’s Washington Post that, “The next big thing is here, all girders and concrete pads, glass roofing and gravelly dirt. Viraj Puri, co-founder of one of the nation’s largest indoor farm companies, walks through the construction site, and even without the luminous frills of thousands of butter lettuces, it’s easy to see that the building going up where Bethlehem Steel once stood is something ambitious in the world of food.

“The Sparrows Point steelworks in Baltimore, once the largest steel-producing facility in the world, was shuttered in 2012, leaving no trace of what once supported 30,000 families with Bethlehem Steel wages. Now the vacated land is dominated by a FedEx distribution center, an Amazon fulfillment center, an Under Armour warehouse.

“And by the beginning of December, Puri’s Gotham Greens farm will join them, part of a global craze for decentralized indoor food production.

The Post article stated that, “Food and agriculture innovation have sucked up remarkable amounts of investor capital in recent years and could become a $700 billion market by 2030, according to a Union Bank of Switzerland report.

“Millions are being invested globally in indoor urban farms because of their promise to produce more food with less impact, with two dozen large-scale projects launching in Dubai, Israel, the Netherlands and other countries.”

Ms. Reiley noted that, “And for indoor urban farms, especially those that rely solely on artificial light, there’s another concern: lightbulbs.

“In September, the Trump administration announced it would roll back Obama-era energy efficiency standards that would have effectively phased out the standard pear-shaped incandescent variety. The step is expected to slow the demand for LED bulbs, which last longer and use less electricity than many other types but are more expensive.”

For indoor urban agriculture, especially indoor vertical farms, the reversal represents a threat to an already narrow path to scalability and profitability, according to Irving Fain, chief executive of Bowery Farming. The indoor vertical farming company has raised $122.5 million from celebrity chefs Tom Colicchio, José Andrés and Carla Hall, Amazon worldwide consumer chief executive Jeff Wilke and Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi,” the Post article said.

Today’s article explained that, “Indoor vertical farming became economically viable when LEDs became plentiful, cheap and efficient. Before that, indoor growing lights produced enormous amounts of heat — heat mapping was frequently how police identified illegal marijuana growing houses — and thus cooling costs and electricity bills were astronomical.”

Ms. Reiley pointed out that, “Indoor urban farmers, especially those farming vertically, have built their profitability models on projections that LEDs will continue to get exponentially brighter and less expensive, will run cooler and will become more efficient.

“Chris Granda, senior researcher/advocate at the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, says rolling back the efficiency standards will hamper the expansion of LEDs and their continued march toward greater efficiency.”

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