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Smart Greenhouses Generate Solar Power While Also Growing Plants More Efficiently

S u m m a r y :
Smart greenhouses not only generate electricity from solar energy but they also allow plants to grow better, according to new findings published in the American Geophysical Union’s journal Earth’s Future.

Using Solar Power Without Robbing Plants of Sunlight

We now have a new generation of greenhouses: smart ones. In a world where we have ‘smart’ everything, it is no surprise that we have transformed conventional greenhouses into technologically advanced ones. So, now, we can even grow plants better in solar-powered greenhouses that harness solar energy to generate electricity. One might think that a greenhouse seeking to exploit solar energy would rob plants of sunlight—however, quite the contrary happens: not only does plant growth not get reduced, but the plants actually grow better.

“We have demonstrated that ‘smart greenhouses’ can capture solar energy for electricity without reducing plant growth, which is pretty exciting,” says lead author Michael Loik from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

A smart greenhouse that not only generates electricity from sunlight but also grows plants more efficiently. Photo credits: Nick Gonzales.

Electricity & Better Tomatoes

The greenhouse bears bright magenta panels to absorb sunlight and transfer the energy to photovoltaic strips to produce electricity. It only takes enough of the sunlight for energy purposes, leaving the rest for plants; this is possible with a newly developed technology known as Wavelength-Selective Photovoltaic Systems (WSPVs), the brainchild of co-authors Sue Carter and Glenn Alers. The tech allows for greater efficiency while it is also less costly than conventional photovoltaic systems.

The team of researchers grew fruits of 20 different varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, lemons, limes, peppers, strawberries, and basil. The experiments were carried in two groups: one at Santa Cruz, and another in Watsonville. According to the findings, 80% of the plants were not affected by the darker lighting of the environment owing to the magenta panels; moreover, 20% actually grew better.

“I thought the plants would grow more slowly, because it’s darker under these pink panels. The color of the light makes it like being on the Red Planet,” said Loik. “Plants are sensitive not just to the intensity of light but also to color. But it turns out the plants grow just as well.”

Also, tomato plants required 5% less water being under the panels.

More ‘Smartness’ in the Future

The need for greater energy efficiency in greenhouses is crucial given that they are increasingly being used for the cultivation of plants, explains Loik. Greenhouses are only going to get smarter, specially that smart devices have become the new norm.

“If greenhouses generate electricity on site, that reduces the need for an outside source, which helps lower greenhouse gas emissions even more,” said Loik. “We’re moving toward self-sustaining greenhouses.”

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