Growing trial for greenhouse solar panels

Energy costs have always been a challenge for greenhouse operations. Yet for one Ontario innovator, their advanced renewable energy technology may present a new opportunity for growers to reduce electricity costs as well as carbon footprint, while increasing crop yields.

Heliene Inc. is a Sault Ste. Marie-based solar technology manufacturer working with Niagara College to trial herb crops grown under Heliene’s greenhouse integrated photovoltaic module (GIPV) panels.  This trial is investigating the benefits of the specialized solar panels for a sustainable greenhouse industry, on the path to being carbon neutral.

The pilot project sees basil crops grown under innovative solar-power producing glass at Freeman Herbs greenhouse in Beamsville, and analyzed by student researchers from NC’s Greenhouse Technician program. It is the largest demonstration of the technology in North America.

The project started earlier this year, with Heliene installing its specialty solar panels to half an acre of Freeman Herbs production space. The GIPV panels will power the greenhouse as well as polarize the light to promote plant photosynthesis, says Heliene President Martin Pochtaruk. 

To demonstrate its technology on a real-life commercial scale, Heliene needed a trusted and neutral third party for monitoring results and approached the team at the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre at the College’s Research & Innovation division to provide a detailed analysis.

“There’s no one better than Niagara College in this specific area of applied research,” says Pochtaruk. 

“The main intent is to reduce the footprint of greenhouses by offsetting their own power consumption through solar power generation, while using different solar module backsheet materials to “bend” the frequency of the light, to those areas of the light band-width that enhances photosynthesis,” explains Pochtaruk.

The panels are integrated into the actual roof, unlike traditional solar technologies. The light-polarizing backsheets serve to filter and convert green light to red light, which reportedly improves plant growth, and the photovoltaic cells are used to generate electricity.

Two different solar panel cell arrangements are under study for growing the herbs in addition to a control crop grown under conventional greenhouse glass. The project’s results will examine the energy benefits of the solar panels for other greenhouse businesses while identifying light-related issues and any crop deficiencies. 

The trial is part of a course-based project led by NC Faculty Research Lead Derek Schulze, coordinator for the Greenhouse Technician program. He employs two Research Assistants – students from his program – to make weekly trips to take detailed measurements and obtain data. 

While Freeman is overseeing and managing the crop production, the Research Assistants bring their sensors and equipment each week to assess the crops grown under the panels. They are collecting basil plant height, chlorophyll content, fresh and dry weight at harvest, as well as climate and light quality data in the greenhouse during the growing cycle. There are only a few more months of growing time left in the pilot project.

“At the end of the project, Heliene will have data- and expertise-based validation of the benefits of their solar panels for energy generation, and their effects on crop production, and overall greenhouse profitability,” says Schulze. 

For the students carrying out the research, it is an opportunity to learn about solar panels, detailed plant lighting needs, plant growth in an active greenhouse, data collection, plant yield data collection and analysis and report writing. Such experience will also set them apart when entering the job market following graduation, Schulze adds.

This project received funding from both the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) from its Voucher for Innovation and Productivity I (VIPI) program and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

If the study confirms a reduction in energy costs and improvement in plant growth, Heliene will launch production of the panels on a market scale. 

“The one used at the Freeman Herbs pilot project polarizes the light as a first step of the learning; now we are preparing new solar PV modules for greenhouse applications with nano-coatings as alternatives,” says Pochtaruk, “therefore we will have yet a larger set of pilot projects to properly analyze such light bending – photosynthesis enhancing capabilities.” 

For more information on the resources and capabilities of the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, visit the website.