Alabama Power Looks into Economic Feasibility of Indoor Agriculture

Alabama Power an electric utility company, has taken on a research project that is virtually unprecedented among utility companies. The power company is looking into the use of LED lighting to grow crops. A refurbished Freight Farm shipping container outside the Technology Applications Center at the General Services Complex in Calera is the location of the project.

Alabama Power engineer Blair Farley and Cheryl McFarland, commercial and industrial marketing support manager

Alabama Power engineer Blair Farley and Cheryl McFarland, commercial and industrial marketing support manager

In a specially customized, insulated and climate controlled shipping container, employees grow lettuce and other vegetables, as well as herbs and edible flowers. The goal of the project is to see if the cost of using electricity for indoor agriculture is economically feasible compared to traditional agriculture.

Exploring the container farm concept at Alabama Power originated from an increasing interest in indoor agriculture and the need to fully understand the benefits of using electricity to enhance the process.

Potential Advantages of Indoor Agriculture

It is thought that indoor agriculture could be a revolutionary for farmers, stores, restaurants, consumers. Alabama Power asserts that crop could be grown year-round in a controlled environment with nutrients in circulated water. Soil would not be necessary and few or no pesticides would be needed.

Furthermore, crops could be grown in urban settings and areas categorized as food deserts (locations where fresh food is not easily accessible). Also, transportation costs could be dramatically reduced or eliminated with food possibly grown near consumers and stores.

Alabama Power says for example that indoor farming can produce 12 more lettuce harvests a year, and needs up to 90 percent less water, than a traditional outdoor farm.

One way of saving on electricity, according to the company, is to use energy efficient LED lighting and other components which can be programmed to operate during off-peak hours to take advantage of cheaper electric rates. Alabama Power speculates that with the electricity needed to operate the lighting and climate control systems, indoor farming could present a new range of opportunities for the company.

Indoor Farming Could be Done in Repurposed Buildings and Warehouses

In theory, Repurposed vacant warehouses or buildings, including those with existing utilities, could be utilized for controlled-environment agriculture, providing jobs for Alabamians. Other potential advantages include growing crops during periods of
drought or excessive rainfall; producing fruits and vegetables not native to a geographic area; and having uninterrupted growing seasons.

“Indoor agriculture can be a great addition to the already thriving agriculture industry in our state,” said Cheryl McFarland, commercial and industrial marketing support manager.

But there are challenges. Like any new, fast-growing concept, scarce data is available to determine long-term pros and cons. High start-up costs and unavailable labor may make it a financial risk. Additionally, vague or unfavorable city laws could pose a barrier to an indoor agriculture operation.

Shipping Container Farming Operation

In January 2017, Alabama Power employees installed a 40-foot hydroponic container and began producing lettuce one month later. The container has a seed germination table and 256 vertical towers holding up to 17 small heads of lettuce each. However, the food production is not limited to lettuce and includes basil, arugula, carrots, dill, and radishes.

With the help of automation, the APC container is relatively self-sufficient. However, one to two employees with other work responsibilities spend a little of their time each week planting, harvesting and performing routine maintenance in the container.
Alabama Power plans to assess produce production and water and electricity usage, then compare findings with similar projects.

“We feel the interest in indoor agriculture is continuing to grow as consumers demand more fresh, local and healthy food options in stores and restaurants,” McFarland said.

“Interest in indoor agriculture or controlled environment agriculture is growing either in completely enclosed settings, such as our container, augmented greenhouses or empty buildings, like a vacant mall or Walmart,” McFarland added. “It’s a great way to provide access to fresh foods and jobs in rural communities and urban settings, particularly in areas of food deserts.”