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How Solar Power Changes Agriculture: Solar Robots, Vertical Farms, and Beyond

11.10.2017 — 0

How solar power creates synergies and adds value to innovative agriculture.

Modern economies are widely considered to be knowledge-based and innovation-driven. We hear that everyday and most often tend to think about large R&D projects done by corporations in-house, or perhaps about Silicon Valley start-ups tinkering with new digital technologies. However, the interesting part is that the “cognitive” component of today’s economic life spans across all sectors, not only technology per se. As contemporary commodities contain more knowledge and know-how than previously, and this tendency is growing with the passage of time, knowledge-based economy encompasses even the oldest human activities, such as agriculture.

The growing importance of knowledge and technology in agriculture is reflected by the dynamics of employment in this sector. The declining figures of agricultural employment across the developed countries show that human work assisted by cutting-edge technology becomes more productive and the industry becomes less labor-intensive.

Data source: https://data.worldbank.org/, Solar DAO research

Today the production of agricultural products involves many complex know-hows like using chemical fertilizers developed in a long process of laboratory research, complex agronomy on the ground, as well as marketing and certification techniques of considerable sophistication in the post-production period. Thus, agriculture today is as innovative and technology-driven as everything else.

And perhaps even more. With the global food risks increasing, the R&D component in agriculture becomes more, not less, important. Over the last 60 years, the world’s spending in agricultural R&D increased from $6.2 billion in 1960 to $38.1 billion in 2011, according to a recent research published in *Nature *in 2016.

As the authors write, investments in R&D are inextricably intertwined with growth in agricultural productivity and food supplies, but it takes decades for the consequences of these investments to be fully realized: “Today’s R&D investment decisions will cast shadows forward to 2050 and beyond”.

**Picture credit: **http://www.nature.com/news/agricultural-rd-is-on-the-move-1.20571

Agriculture has always been based on solar energy. However, today, as renewable energy becomes more and more established, and new innovative solar solutions emerge, the age-old relationship between sunlight and agriculture might change as a result of disruptive innovation.

Solar Robots in Agriculture

Meet Ladybird, a solar-powered, autonomous, data-collecting robot created by the researchers from the University of Sydney, Australia. It’s purpose is to make farming more efficient, or, more ambitiously, to disrupt the farming industry.

The robot completed its first testing rounds, so there are some videos demonstrating Ladybird in action. The robot works as an autonomous data collector and gives the farmers detailed information about the crops, mapping the yield and identifying problematic areas where something goes wrong with the plants. In a fully developed configuration, it is hoped to be able to harvest the yield as well.

Ladybird is slow and does not damage the soil, but flexible enough to navigate the sometimes complex agricultural landscapes. More importantly, being solar-powered, it is also sustainable. In the time of climate change and food crisis, a farming robot powered by solar energy looks like a perfect solution.

Solar-powered robots are being implemented to fulfill other agricultural tasks as well. For example, in micro-spraying: robots use computer vision to detect weeds and then spray a targeted drop of herbicide onto them. Using spraying on a micro-scale reduces environmental damage and costs. The AG BOT II is a solar powered robot created to do precisely that. Using micro-spraying robots is estimated to save $1.3 billion annually.

Solar-Powered Vertical Farms

**Vertical Cities, artwork by Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky. Picture credit: **https://thecharnelhouse.org/content/images/2014/03/higher-resolution-el-lissitzky-wolkenbc3bcgel-cloud-irons-horizontal-skyscrapers-etc-1924.jpg

In 1895, Gabriel Tarde, a French sociologist and visionary thinker, wrote:

If this lively instinct of sociability which makes men want to agglomerate themselves, either to better defend themselves or to develop themselves more fully, did not rapidly encounter an impassable limit, it is likely that we would see nations composed of clusters of men towering into the air, supported on the earth without spreading over it.

He might have been right as to the ultimate limits of the expansion of vertical architecture, but, as our current experience shows, there is still plenty of space above our heads. That’s the core idea behind vertical farming which we covered in our recent post. The concept of vertical farming is already disrupting traditional agriculture, allowing to grow plants in the spaces with limited area and water supply, while economizing on costs and promoting sustainability. Here, again, solar energy can add value and spur innovation.

The idea of solar powered vertical farming literally floats in the air. Thus, Shell Corporation advances a concept of Hybrid Solar Lighting vertical farms, powered by focused mirror arrays configured to direct sunlight to each plant. Solar collectors transit the sunlight through fiber optic cables into the building and then then mirrors reflect light from the edges of the floors to the plants in the core of the structure. This would help to deal with the issue of the floors above blocking sunlight from those below in the vertical farms.

There is nothing unusual in solar farming, since, as we have already observed, agriculture has always been dependent on sunlight. Small-scale systems are widely used worldwide, looking like this:

However, vertical farming is a concept oriented at industrial scales, and it is here where solar power can make difference. Several projects utilizing solar energy for vertical farming are already in use.

Vertical farms solve land problems for overpopulated cities like Singapore, the city that imports 90% of its food supplies. A Singapore-based start-up Packet Greens raised $1.5 billion of venture capital to build vertical hydroponic farms that will allow to grow more than 50 sorts of vegetables and with the volume of yield being 50 times that of traditional farming. Packet Greens develops farms of 167 square meters of area, of the size of four-room apartment. Other examples of vertical farming include the U.S.-based MightyVine and SquareRoots, an agricultural startup accelerator created by Elon Musk’s younger brother.

The benefits of vertical farming are that no soil and much less water are used to grow plants at a higher speed and with more yield than in traditional farming. Growing plants vertically requires much less pesticides and thus reduces environmental damage of industrial agriculture. Vertical farms also promote local food supplies and create local green jobs, thus gradually pushing forward a new geographical division of labour along with other renewable energy jobs. They also democratize access to farming, being less dependent on climate issues that require large capital investments to deal with. In addition, vertical farming stimulates local economies and makes use of abandoned urban spaces, reducing their social costs and creating positive community impacts. How does solar fit into this picture?

**Picture credit: **https://disruptionhub.com/content/images/2015/07/Skyscraper-Farming.jpg

Well, most importantly, solar energy can make vertical farming cheaper and thus more accessible. Not all vertical farms are solar-powered, but the introduction of solar energy power here might unlock further benefits. One of the most ambitious projects in solar vertical farming is the Metropolis Farms facility in Philadelphia, where a 500 kW solar array made up of more than 2000 solar panels is constructed on the roof of a building. On the fourth floor, a vertical farm will be constructed to be powered entirely by solar electricity coming from the roof. Metropolis Farms plans to grow the equivalent f 660 outdoor acres worth of crops in less than 100,000 square feet, including tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce, herbs, broccoli, and others. Just watch this video:

https://youtu.be/PBOQR3KiaUM

In other words, in the case vertical farming, bringing solar energy in creates positive feedback loops and can increase the value of agricultural innovation.

Farming in Deserts

With the help of technology, farming can be done not only in places with limited available area like Singapore, but also in deserts. The idea of desert farming powered by solar photovoltaics emerged in Israel, as CleanTechnica aptly summarizes the Israeli approach:

When you have several problems going on at once, mash them up together and see what happens. In the case we’re talking about too much salt, too much sun, and not enough soil and water for farming. Israel found the key to the solution in brackish aquifer water, and Sahara Forest has come up with its own twist.

Sahara Forest is a Jordanian farming project located in the three hectares Aqaba Desert. It is capable of producing more than 95 litres of water in a day, and about 130 tons of vegetables annually. The project is powered by photovoltaic panels.

Solar power is used to evaporate seawater for a freshwater source, and seawater is used to fulfill the double task as a coolant for the greenhouses as well. Another know-how of desert farming is to use evaporative hedges to cool outdoor growing zones, so that both in- and outdoor cooling strategies enable the facility’s concentrated solar power plant to operate without cooling towers.

Sahara Forest also has greenhouse facilities in Qatar than were reported to be competitive with its European counterparts in terms of yield, while using half of the water employed in conventional greenhouses in the region. Besides Jordan and Qatar, Sahara Forest is working on a project in Tunisia.

In other words, solar power is not only useful per se, but can create positive feedback loops (or synergies) and add value in other innovative projects. Agriculture is just an example, although a very important one. Vertical farms and green deserts cultivated by solar robots is a future, but it is coming increasingly near.

In Solar DAO, we are working hard to make that future happen sooner. Stay tuned.

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