Through the collection and analysis of greenhouse energy-use data with a new energy benchmark tool and database, growers will be able to understand their greenhouse energy consumption and costs enabling them to improve efficiency, sustainability and profits.
You would be hard-pressed to find two greenhouses that operate exactly the same way. Even within the same company, differences in crops, greenhouse location and orientation and facility systems, can impact the way greenhouses operate.
“A question that I receive all the time is what is the best system for greenhouse production?” said Erico Mattos, executive director of the Greenhouse Lighting and Systems Engineering (GLASE) consortium. “It is difficult to provide growers with specific answers because there is no baseline to compare different systems against.
“Another set of questions that I receive comes from investors who want to do due diligence with a new greenhouse or retrofit project. They want to know what is the best technology available and how much can they save with a system compared to industry baselines. Those are hard questions to answer. In some states utility companies can do a customized energy audit for a proposed greenhouse project, but they don’t have standardized metrics they can compare the project to.”
In 2015, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) worked with various state agencies to form the Clean Energy for Agriculture Task Force. The task force developed a strategic plan to lower energy costs and to accelerate the use of clean energy.
“One of the subgroups that were considered during the task force’s discussions was to look at greenhouses,” said Jessica Zweig, project manager at NYSERDA. “When the task force’s strategic plan was developed it identified the need to provide benchmarking for the greenhouse industry. Greenhouses were included in the plan because this market sector continues to grow in New York State.
“Subsequently, funding was approved by the state’s Department of Public Service to benchmark 80 New York State greenhouses. NYSERDA began working with GLASE to create a program that included the 80 greenhouses into a database and benchmarking program.”
Neil Mattson, horticulture professor at Cornell University and GLASE principal investigator, said New York’s greenhouse vegetable industry is growing at a faster rate than most agricultural sectors in the state.
“The New York greenhouse vegetable industry is growing at a rate of 10 percent annually,” Mattson said. “At the same time, there is a realization that commercial greenhouse operations use a lot of energy compared to outdoor field production.
“Unlike the greenhouse industry, trying to improve energy consumption in commercial buildings like schools and office buildings, there are national databases available with energy metrics that consider energy use. The commercial greenhouse industry is very fragmented with different commodities grown in different climates. There is currently no database growers can refer to in order to understand energy needs by crop segment or by climate.”
In early 2020, NYSERDA and GLASE were in discussion with Kyle Clark, vice president of business development at EnSave Inc., about the greenhouse industry’s need for benchmarks and baselines. EnSave, an agricultural engineering and consultant firm, was selected by NYSERDA to lead the development of the New York State Greenhouse Database and Benchmark Tool, which uses EnSave’s Farm Energy Audit Tool (FEAT) software as its engine.
Standardizing greenhouse data
Over the next two years GLASE is seeking the participation of New York greenhouse growers to collect energy-use data and to develop energy benchmarks that will inform greenhouse industry stakeholders.
“There are fairly well-established energy benchmarks for a variety of industries, including steel production, hospitals and schools,” Clark said. “In the agricultural sector there have been industry-led efforts to develop benchmarks for dairy and poultry farms. In the greenhouse sector there aren’t any widely publicized energy benchmark metrics which is part of what GLASE and NYSERDA are trying to address.
“One important objective is to standardize the benchmarking process which means standardizing the data inputs and outputs. The key performance indicators (KPIs) are the benchmarking metrics we are looking at. We want these metrics to be meaningful to growers and other industry stakeholders and aligned with other benchmarking initiatives which are emerging in the controlled environment sector.”
Clark said one of the key objectives of NYSERDA and GLASE is to ensure the 80 greenhouses that participate in the program have the data collected and reported in the same format to establish consistency.
“Collecting the same KPIs will give growers the ability to benchmark either against themselves year-over-year or if they operate multiple greenhouses, to compare one greenhouse against another,” Clark said. “Once enough data is collected, it will allow GLASE to develop benchmarks for different segments of greenhouses. This will enable peer-to-peer benchmarking so that growers have a better understanding of how they stack up against other greenhouse operations. GLASE will also publish annual state-of-the-industry reports with overall findings related to greenhouse industry energy-use efficiency.”
Collecting, disseminating accurate data
One of the benefits of the project for New York growers is they won’t have to collect their own data. Mattson said collecting the data can be a time-consuming process and GLASE wanted to make it as easy as possible for the growers.
“This NYSERDA-funded project is going to create a very reliable and high rigor data set,” Clark said. “That is one of the things that set the GLASE project apart from other energy benchmarking initiatives, whether for greenhouses or other facility types. Some initiatives rely on self-reported data for developing benchmarks, which introduces opportunities for human error or misinterpreting inputs.”
Trained FlexTech Consultants, who are experienced in conducting greenhouses energy audits will be visiting New York greenhouses to collect the data.
“The reason we chose FlexTech Consultants was to be able to cover the state, but also to minimize the number of persons collecting the data,” Zweig said. “This will allow us to maintain data integrity as we build out the database.”
All GLASE members will be able to access the database to develop their own benchmark reports and view anonymized benchmark data.
“GLASE members who look at the database will be able to review anonymous, aggregate data not tied to a specific operation,” Mattos said. “This data will be of particular interest to other industry stakeholders, particularly private companies that want to understand the state of the industry. This would include lighting manufacturers, industry suppliers and investment groups. As GLASE members, this database can help them to understand how to make smart investments and how to base their decisions and to guide their development in the industry.”
Growers who participate in the project will receive a report that includes a comprehensive overview of energy performance benchmarks at the individual greenhouse level and at the crop level. Examples of energy benchmark KPIs include the amount of electricity use and greenhouse gas emissions per square foot and per unit of crop yield (for example, kWh per square foot and pounds of carbon dioxide per pound or unit of product). Additionally, the report will contain a recommendation section.
“In addition to energy benchmarking, the reports provide recommended actions for improving energy efficiency,” Clark said. “These recommendations are low-hanging fruit actions such as installing a thermal curtain if a greenhouse is being heated.
“The report also provides a technology score. Up to seven different greenhouse systems or attributes are individually scored, including glazing material, lighting system efficacy, lighting controls and environmental controls. The scores compare the greenhouse’s current systems to what is commercially available. The report will compare the greenhouse systems against lower and upper bounds to give a sense of where a technology falls on that spectrum.”
The greenhouse benchmark report is not intended to be a replacement for an energy audit, but is complementary and provides insight into greenhouse energy performance that is not provided in an energy audit.
Mattos said the goal of this three-year project is to provide greenhouse growers with a consistent baseline for their operations. This will enable them to benchmark their operation’s energy performance against other growers and commercially-available technologies.
“The goal of the project is not regulatory, but instead by helping growers understand their energy use relative to their peers, they can make strategic decisions over time to increase their profits,” Mattson said.
Interested in participating?
Commercial greenhouse growers in New York State who are interested in participating in the New York State Greenhouse Database and Benchmark Tool project can submit an application via mail or email. The project is voluntary, there is no cost to participate and growers do not have to be members of GLASE.
Grower applicants must be a USDA-defined farm ($1,000+ a year agricultural products produced and sold) and operate a greenhouse facility. The greenhouse operation must also be a customer of a New York State investor-owned utility that contributes to the electric System Benefits Charge (SBC). This qualification can be determined by referring to an electric bill.
For more: Erico Mattos, GLASE, (302) 290-1560; email@example.com; https://live-cu-glase.pantheonsite.io/. Greenhouse Database and Benchmark Tool, https://live-cu-glase.pantheonsite.io/benchmark/.
David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; firstname.lastname@example.org.