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The Perils of Power

bright idea
bright idea

An expensively bright idea.

There are a number of different solutions for northern food insecurity that have been presented to northern stakeholders. Many of these solutions are containerized installations that are capable of growing leafy greens and a few vegetables inside closed containers using ‘energy efficient’ LED lights. In order to evaluate whether or not each solution actually solves a problem, northern stakeholders need to persistently ask the correct questions of the developers of this technology who often claim that their ideas are ‘market-ready’. The first question that needs to be asked is, ‘Is this market-ready for the North?’

One of the most consistently misunderstood variables is the power consumption of each installation. There are many southern-developed technologies that operate well in locations where power is cheap, however, when the average cost of power in the Northwest Territories is $0.43 per kWhr, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify high power expenditures. At this rate, electricity could easily consume most of the cost of production and make the difference between a productive community operation and an endeavor that isn’t remotely useful.

LED lights are often sold under the premise that they are energy efficient which leaves northerners under the impression that they will be able to reduce the expense of one of their most significant inputs – electricity. Although LEDs do indeed efficiently convert electricity into light that’s the most useful to plants, they have very poor coverage of a given area and proportionately more of them need to be used. The total wattage of LEDs required for a given space typically exceeds that of more conventional lighting systems by a wide margin.

Before any entrepreneurs or public agencies invest in any CEA installation that uses LED lights, they must ask the following questions and not stop until they have an actual answer:

  • What is the average power consumption of an installation? The answer to this question must be in kWhrs (kilowatt hours) because this is what you’re paying for on your electrical bill. Don’t be deflected with the response, ‘that depends’. The average power consumption does indeed depend on a number of variables but the person selling a containerized concept must be able to state a range or an average (for example, ‘This installation will consume between 1.5 and 2.5 kWhr continuous.’) It’s also important to confirm that the average power estimate is comprehensive and not just an estimate for a single string of lights. Ask for the TOTAL AVERAGE and don’t stop until you have it.
  • Containers the depend on the use of LED lights tend to be very expensive: What is the initial capital cost of one of these installations?
  • How does the cost of this input affect the financial model that will be used to support the installation? Suppose that you’ve been given an average power estimate of 7.5 kWhrs. If you’re paying the NWT average, you’re paying $3.23 per hour to support the production of leafy greens that do little to address food security issues and are of little interest to remote communities.

These answers will allow northerners to evaluate whether or not this technology is market-ready for the North and must be considered before any discussions about business models and investment. It must be allowed that LEDs hold a lot of promise for the future but much, much more research and development needs to be done with this technology before it has any real application in the North.

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