The Perils of Power

powerThere are a number of different solutions for northern food insecurity that have been presented to northern stakeholders. Many of these solutions are based on controlled-environment-agriculture (CEA) installations that are capable of growing leafy greens and a few vegetables inside closed containers using ‘energy efficient’ LED lights. In order to evaluate whether or not each solution actually solves a problem, northern stakeholders need to persistently ask the correct questions of the developers of this technology who often claim that their ideas are ‘market-ready’. The first question that needs to be asked is, ‘Is this market-ready for the North?’

One of the most consistently misunderstood variables is the power consumption of each CEA installation. There are many southern-developed technologies that operate well in locations where power is cheap, however, when the average cost of power in the Northwest Territories is $0.43 per kWhr, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify high energy expenditures. At this rate, energy expenditures could easily consume most of the cost of production and make the difference between a productive community operation and an endeavor that isn’t remotely useful.

LED lights are often sold under the premise that they are energy efficient which leaves northerners under the impression that they will be able to reduce the expense of one of their most significant inputs – electricity. Although LEDs do indeed efficiently convert electricity into light that’s the most useful to plants, they have very poor coverage of a given area and proportionately more of them need to be used. The total wattage of LEDs required for a given space typically exceeds that of other lighting systems by a wide margin.

Before any entrepreneurs or public agencies invest in any CEA installation that uses LED lights, they must ask the following questions and not stop until they have an actual answer:

  • What is the average power consumption of a complete installation? The answer to this question must be in kWhrs (kilowatt hours) because this is what you’re paying for on your electrical bill. Don’t be deflected with the response, ‘that depends’. The average power consumption does indeed depend on a number of variables but the person selling a CEA product or concept must be able to state a range or an average (for example, ‘This installation will consume between 1.5 and 2.5 kWhr continuous depending on how you intend to use it.’) It’s also important to confirm that the average power estimate is comprehensive and not just an estimate for a single string of lights. Ask for the TOTAL AVERAGE and don’t stop until you have an answer.
  • How does the cost of this input affect the financial model that will be used to support the installation? Suppose that you’ve been given an average power estimate of 7.5 kWhrs. If you’re paying the NWT average, you’re paying $3.23 per hour to support your operations. Or $77.52 per day. Or $2325.60 per month. When you combine the cost of this input with the cost of labour, water, nutrients, etc., will you actually be able to productively grow food and support yourself or your community?
  • Are there innovative ways to generate electricity and recapture waste heat? Renewable energy sources have historically had very high initial costs especially when they need to be scaled to handled large loads (>5 kWhrs continuous.) However, if methods can be found that not only produce electricity for lighting systems but produce usable heat at the same time, the overall costs of operating a CEA structure in cold environments could be significantly reduced.

These answers will allow northerners to evaluate whether or not this technology is market-ready for the North and must be considered before any discussions about business models and investment. It must be allowed that LEDs hold a lot of promise for the future but much, much more research and development needs to be done with this technology before it has any real application in the North.

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