Using Urbanvine.co, Patrick Flynn created a free online resource to help urban residents learn how to start urban farming without any prior experience. With the growth of the website, he discovered that “urban farming” is a general term that can refer to a large number of concepts, including grow lights and hydroponics which are now covered in greater detail on the website.
Growing rapidly, the market for horticultural lighting is booming. Report Linker, a market research firm that specialises in agriculture, issues a press release in September stating that a forecast for the horticultural lighting market estimates the market will grow from $2.43 billion this year to $6.21 billion by the year 2023.
An important factor driving growth in the current market sector is the enhancement of LED grow light technology. As an alternative to the traditional incandescent light bulb developed by Thomas Edison in 1879, LEDs (light emitting diodes) were invented in the 1950s as a smaller and more efficient source of illumination.
In comparison with other types of lighting, LED bulbs last longer, give off less heat, and produce more light when converting energy to light, all of which contribute to increasing yields and profits for indoor growers.
Although LEDs have been used to grow plants indoors experimentally only until recently, largely due to their high price, LEDs have not been widely adopted in commercial applications. There are still many commercial growers using High Intensity Discharge (HID) lighting, such as High Pressure Sodium, Metal Halide, and Ceramic Metal Halide, which provide high power output, but are less durable, produce greater heat, and have a less customisation spectrum of light.
Currently, LEDs are rapidly overtaking incandescent lamps as the dominant horticultural lighting source. Since 1954, semiconductor chips used to make LED lights have decreased in price one million times.
When it comes to LED lighting technology for horticulture, it can be a minefield for investors more familiar with field-based agriculture. Even though it is no longer the “early days” of LED technology development, current trends continue to influence the development of LED technology.
Why is LED grow light technology crucial to the success of the modern agribusiness? What information is necessary for the intelligent agtech investor to understand?
As part of my interview with Jeff Mastin, director of R&D at Total Grow LED Lighting, I discussed the future of LED grow light technology for agriculture, and how investors can capitalise on current trends in the future.
Could you tell me about your background and how you became involved in grow light technology at Total Grow?
Venntis Technologies is the company that developed TotalGrow. Since its beginnings, Venntis has focused on integrating touch-sensing semiconductor technology into a wide range of products.
A majority of people are unaware that LEDs are semiconductors; they can also be used for touch-sensing technologies, so LED technology in agriculture has a strong connection.
LED glare, shadowing, and color separation are some of the major technical challenges that agriculture faces when using LEDs.
The LED technology we have been developing for touch-sensing LEDs have been applied to horticulture LEDs, giving us better control over the spectrum and the directional output of the LED in ways that a standard LED is unable to accomplish.
I have a biology background. Taking the lead on the science and research side of the development process for the product was a natural fit for a biologist when TotalGrow began exploring the horticultural world about 7 years ago.
How would you summarize the trends in horticultural lighting that you are seeing, if you were to distill your technical focus into trends you are observing?
The the horticultural lighting industry is experiencing a significant revolution as a result of LED technology. LEDs were primarily used as research tools and as a novelty in the horticultural world less than ten years ago.
It has been assumed in the past that they are not efficient enough and certainly not affordable enough, yet, to be considered an economical general commercial light source.
This is rapidly changing, however. LEDs are becoming more and more efficient as well as more affordable, and they have reached the tipping point now where they are beginning to dominate horticulture and indoor farming for many, but not all, applications.
What are your thoughts on translating those trends into actionable points? What is the best way for investors in agriculture technology to make sure their investments in LED light technology won’t make them obsolete in a year or two?
LEDs are still a cost-efficient option. However, technology can only improve so much.
Why is that? Because there are physical limitations. It’s impossible to produce a 100% efficient product which can convert every bit of electricity into light photons. The efficiency of the top of the line LEDs has reached over 50% at this point.
What are our chances of reaching 70 or 80%? Most likely, not anytime soon, at least not with an affordable or economical end product.
To answer your question, it’s not a category that’s going to be replaced with something three times better tomorrow. The performance improvements will be less pronounced.
Compared to now, the cost will be lower in ten years. Current LED technology will, however, not become obsolete because of this cost reduction. To answer that concern, I don’t believe LED light technologies will become obsolete in the near future.
Can you provide an estimate of the cost of horticultural LEDs in a large commercial vertical farming facility?
An estimate of the cost of lighting for a large facility would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 per square foot. However, the cost can be half or double of that amount.
This is only in terms of typical vertical farming plants, such as greens and herbs, as well as plants of similar size and lighting requirements.
The ability to use higher light levels and have the plants make good use of them greatly increases when we are referring to tomatoes or medicinal plants. Certain plants are four times more effective than others, and this is for good reason.
Is LED technology not the best solution for horticultural lighting applications currently or in the near future?
LEDs do not make sense in at least three areas at the present time and in the immediate future.
To begin with, if the LED lights are not used frequently enough. Consequently, the higher the number of hours that the lights are used in a year, the faster they will return their investment through energy savings and reduced maintenance requirements. A cheaper solution is appropriate for applications that only require lighting for a few weeks each year.
Furthermore, LEDs may not be the best option for some time to come for greenhouse applications. In greenhouses, where higher hang heights are possible and fewer hours of use are required, less expensive lights, such as high-pressure sodium, will be of greater use. There are many greenhouses that will benefit from LED lighting, however, cost considerations and other considerations make it important to take into account both options for greenhouses.
Additionally, some plants are less suited to vertical farming growing styles, where LEDs possess their greatest benefits. Currently, it is not usual to attempt to grow large fruiting plants completely indoors such as tomatoes or cucumbers, but if one attempts this, LEDs are still more practical compared to legacy lighting.