Solar-powered greenhouses in the Yukon? Even in the winter?

Rating: High school and post-secondary

Summary: Markham interviews researcher Henry Penn, University of Calgary and The Arctic Institute of North America’s Kluane Lake Research Station, about an exciting new greenhouse research project in SW Yukon that relies mostly on solar power and batteries, even during the winter.

Related links:

Western Canada’s first off-grid food production facility to provide fresh produce to Yukon community year-round

Tony Seba: Electric revolution by 2030?

Markham Hislop: If you get a chance, check out our energy talks podcast from early November with Tony Seba (see Related Stories above), the futurist from Stanford who put out a new report arguing that by 2030, the combination of wind, solar, and battery storage will bring down the cost of electricity so low that it will restructure both the economy and society in the same way that the combination of the internal combustion engine and cheap petroleum did beginning in the 1920s.

Now, the project we’re going to talk about today in this interview is a little example of what Seba was talking about. It’s using solar energy to power greenhouses that’ll grow produce in the far North of Canada where vegetables and fruit are very expensive and hard to get. We’re going to talk to Henry Penn from the University of Calgary.

Why don’t we start with an overview of this project, please?

Henry Penn: The project has installed a containerized hydroponic food production system at the Cornea Lake research station, which is in Southwest Yukon, with the purpose of understanding and evaluating both the practical applications in terms of what can be grown and how you do it.

And then secondly, the economical, social and environmental concerns that go along with these systems and, and helping to provide as much information as possible to other Northern communities that would want to install one of these systems or use one of these systems.

Markham Hislop: Now I’m a Northern boy. I grew up in Northern Manitoba, North of the 58, I think. So I understand what a Northern winter is like – very cold and long with short days. So how does the solar technology, how does it work during wintertime?

Henry Penn: The solar technology is paired with a battery storage system and a power management system. And then we’re also connected to the existing 20-kilowatt diesel generator that is at the Cornea Lake research station. The purpose of connecting all three systems is to essentially create efficiencies in the system. So when there are lots of solar, we use solar. When there’s minimal solar, but we’ve charged up the batteries, we use batteries. And then for the periods of the year where there’s insufficient solar, we use diesel with battery storage.

Markham Hislop: What does that do to the economics? Because I’m assuming you’ve done some preliminary crunching of the numbers and compared what you think a tomato will cost out of your greenhouse as compared to what it would cost to ship it up.

Henry Penn: We’ve some preliminary numbers. A lot of the calculations go into how much it will cost to grow. Also have to take into account how much you can sell it for and therefore what the market interest in that product is. And so we haven’t done too much work on that yet because one of the major parts of this project is community-led and community-driven in the sense that the communities and the people around the research station will have direct input on what we grow in the container.

In terms of how much the solar is going to contribute for nine to 10 months of the year, there will be zero diesel signature on this containerized food production system. So that will obviously greatly reduce the cost of that produce.

Markham Hislop: I noticed as a researcher, you didn’t let me nail you down on this one. Fair enough. You need to get the project up and running so that you can actually have real data to do your calculations. Let’s assume for a second that it is economic and, and it seems to me that every project like this – I don’t mean just greenhouses in the North, but new technologies that are being tested and piloted – you always start out at the high point of the cost curve. And then as the technology gets better and as you learn – and learning is a key part of bringing down costs – then the cost curve bends down, and you get to the point where it’s cheaper. Is that the process you expect here?

Henry Penn: Yeah, I think so. I mean, as you said, this is a research project. And so we have funding for multiple years with this container and with this system, which will enable us to try lots of different experimental ways of operating it. We can try different business models, we can try different produce. We can leverage existing containers and hydroponic systems across Canada and Northern parts of the world and really combine all that together to create a model or a handbook even, for how these systems can be used in the North.

How they can be used, particularly in smaller population locations. So we’re not a big city, we’re not, you know, a Southern city. We’re in a Northern environment with, you know, 3,000 to 5,000 people around us.

Markham Hislop: That’s very interesting. And I want to ask you why you chose solar instead of wind. It seems to me that wind would be available in the North 12 months of the year. So why did you choose solar?

Henry Penn: We chose solar for a couple of different reasons.

Firstly, the per kilowatt value on it is, is lower than, than wind for at least our area. So definitely the solar potential in our area exceeds the wind potential in, in our area. And I think having the containerized system, the, that the food production system doesn’t have too many peak loads in it. The lights are on for anywhere from eight to 14 hours a day, depending on what we’re growing and then they’re off. And, there’s few other sort of cyclical processes in there, but we don’t have that sort of peak demand that I think is typically maybe easily addressed with wind when you have these sort of, you know, large drawers and large demands. And so the solar battery generator combination really provides us with sort of a stable local grid to be able to effectively and efficiently manage one of these production systems.

Markham Hislop: Could we look forward to sometime in the future Henry where let’s say a community of 5,000 probably that far North, it gets all of its electricity from diesel and the federal government has identified getting rid of diesel power generation in North as a part of its climate policies. Could you see where you know, you might put in a combination of wind and solar, so that, that community not only does the greenhouse, but also is able to eliminate diesel for other power generation for heating homes and powering homes. Is that, is, are you looking that far ahead?

Henry Penn: We are, I mean, certainly we are from the cornea Lake research stations perspective as well trying to bring as many different systems online as possible to reduce our overall diesel consumption as an operation, not just this project specifically, but the broad operation of the research station. I think in terms of communities in the North, I, from my personal perspective is that there isn’t a silver bullet. There, isn’t a silver bullet here that you have to have a mixture. You have to have some solar, you have to have some wind. You have to have maybe some geothermal whatever is available in the area around the community. That’s what you’ve got to use it. And that’s what should be used in sort of concert with other things. I do think that there is always going to be a need for diesel.

Henry Penn: You know, when the chips are down at negative 40, you know, and it’s dark, the easiest thing to get power is still a diesel generator. And, and I don’t think that’s going away in the immediate future, obviously as back to technology and things like that increases. That’s kind of the route we want to go. But for the time being that break glass case scenario is, is still a diesel generator. And so the technologies that are addressing those emergency pieces are really where I think the key work is needing to be done from a Northern perspective.

Markham Hislop: Yeah, I remember those winters where two or three months of 40 or 50 below. Yeah, you don’t want anything breaking. You’ve got to have that power when you need it now. You must be excited about the prospect during the 2020s. This is what my experts have been told me in many interviews is that the cost of wind and solar and batteries, we’re still looking at significant cost reductions and increasing efficiencies. And that would only argue for this particular project to be more economic, more effective by 2025 or 2030.

Henry Penn: Yeah, I think you’re right. And I think the argument is that we made, I think, you know, even with the higher capital costs of bringing in solar and battery technologies, when we compare that to the cost of bringing food in this particular instance from even just Southern Canada, let alone, you know, so the US, or, or down in South America,ubeing able to grow locally sustainably,uhas to be better, not just from a cost perspective, but from an environmental and social perspective. And as the costs, the costs are only coming down, I think is where we’re going with this. And,I hope that that demonstrates more and more of a need for this type of technology.

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