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New York greenhouses are increasingly tasked to do two things seemingly at odds with one another: match consumer appetite for increased local vegetable production while dramatically reducing overall energy consumption.

A public-private consortium led by researchers at Cornell and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) is poised to accomplish both. The Greenhouse Lighting and Systems Engineering (GLASE) consortium announced June 5 will transform the way greenhouses operate to reduce electricity use for lighting by up to 70 percent.

Led by Neil Mattson, associate professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science, and his collaborators at RPI, GLASE demonstrates a holistic greenhouse energy management system that integrates control of LED lighting, carbon dioxide supplementation, ventilation and humidity.

The seven-year, $5 million project funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) will advance Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s energy policy – Reforming the Energy Vision – that aims to reduce greenhouses gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels.

At RPI’s center for Lighting Enabled Systems & Applications (LESA), engineers will develop energy efficient, cutting-edge light-emitting diode (LED) plant-lighting systems. Unlike the high-pressure sodium bulbs traditionally used to illuminate greenhouses, LED light can be dimmed and the spectrum adjusted to match optimal wavelengths. Cornell horticulture experts in collaboration with LESA photobiologist Tessa Pocock will test dynamic lighting and control systems that adjust to provide light more effectively to plants.

LED lights shine on beds of lettuce at Cornell’s Kenneth Post Laboratory greenhouses
LED lights shine on beds of lettuce at Cornell’s Kenneth Post Laboratory greenhouses. Photo by Chris Kitchen / University Marketing.

Mattson, who directs the Controlled Environment Agriculture group in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said reactive lighting made possible with LED technologies allows growers to provide optimal lighting as conditions change throughout the day. His research at the Kenneth Post and Guterman greenhouse facilities on the Ithaca campus will determine precise LED lighting and control strategies needed by lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries as model plants.

“An ability to adjust in real time the light spectrum and light quantity means plants get consistent, uniform, reproducible light at all times. That means we’re not wasting light and the electricity needed to create it when plants don’t need it for growth,” Mattson said.

Trends in New York are pointing toward more vegetables being grown indoors. The most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture census data shows the cultivation of lettuce and tomatoes in the state increased by 10.6 percent per year from 2007 to 2012.

“This is an industry that continues to expand in the vegetable-growing sector,” Mattson said. “This investment in energy-efficient greenhouse production will help ensure New York’s continued leadership in local food production in the Northeast.”

Along with light and water, plants require carbon dioxide to drive photosynthesis. Previous research by Lou Albright, professor emeritus in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, has shown that lettuce needs substantially less supplemental light if the environment is enriched with carbon dioxide. Mattson and his team will study how tomato and strawberry growth responds to carbon dioxide supplementation.

Data collected from his studies will be used by Cornell biological and environmental engineering colleagues Kale Harbick and Tim Shelford to develop algorithms that growers can use to make dynamic decisions regarding optimal lighting and carbon dioxide conditions. Over the life of the project, Mattson’s team will work with industry partners to test strategies in commercial facilities and monitor the carbon footprint of their operations.

The consortium will work with lighting manufacturers, growers, trade groups, produce buyers, agriculture lighting engineers, researchers, government agencies, Cornell Cooperative Extension specialists and others.

“New York’s greenhouse industry is experiencing rapid growth, making quick and meaningful action key to ensuring new and existing greenhouses are energy-efficient and highly productive,” said John B. Rhodes, president and CEO of NYSERDA. “The consortium’s work will advance Governor Cuomo’s energy goals and New York’s vital agriculture sector.”

Mattson said GLASE is being organized to persist as a self-sustaining group. When the seven-year funding commitment ends, the consortium plans to continue to work with companies and partners to develop an organization that responds to industry needs.

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