Vertical Farming

Update: Today Treehugger has a post about an Israeli company that already has a (limited) vertical farming module that's ready to go.

Original Post: A lot of you have probably already seen this, but...

Vertical farming. Holy awesome concept! I've been obsessing about how a place like NYC will remain sustainable after the disappearance of cheap oil renders the transportation of food into a place like the island of Manhattan infeasable. Could this be the answer? We certainly already have the relevant-sized buildings. (And notice that this project comes out of Columbia University.)

I haven't read the whole thing yet, but one commenter on WorldChanging points out that the Vertical Farming people don't really address the issue of sunlight.

I spent like 30 minutes on the site looking for what their solution is to SUNLIGHT. Vertically stacking the farms means that only the top level gets much sunlight - the rest are in deep shade.

But apparently this problem never occured to them... in their hydroponic section they mention that artificial light is no replacement for sunlight, but they didn't follow up on that comment.

A quick back of the envelop calculation will show you that trying to use artificial lights would draw so much power you'd quickly become the largest single user in the city. They claim that 3M square feet will feed 10,000 people. To light 3M square feet at solar intensities (>1000W/m^2) would require at least 278MW. Assuming light 12h/day, that works out to 334kW/h per day per person, which is about 100 times (!!!) more than a typical household.

(Another commenter responds that certain types of mirrors might be the solution to this problem. Yet another says they can just place the crops that need heavy sunlight in south-facing windows.)

Anyway, undoubtedly there are still all sorts of problems right now, but I really like the sound of this project.

Via Treehugger, Gristmill, BoingBoing, WorldChanging

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Although you could grow some food in the city using this method, I seriously doubt you would come even close to making NYC (or any other city) self-sufficient in food. Light is the fundamental problem, and ultimately you only get so much light per acre. Although incremental improvements to how efficiently this light is used in growing plants can probably be made, there won't be any huge increases in productivity. Additionally, people like light too; every change in lighting that is made to increase plant production in NYC will come at the expense of available daylight for the people who live there. This of course assumes not using artificial light. Any technology that uses artificial lighting as a solution to the above problems has to answer the questions about energy supply that Peak Oilers are already obsessed about.

If you slowly dismantle the skyscrapers using pulleys to lower the pieces to the ground, with the pulleys on shafts that drive generators, you could recover the potential energy that is in all those tall buildings, while using the electricity to grow parsnips or whatever. :-)

The pulley idea also may allow NYC to refashion itself to a more sustainable design in an orderly fashion - after all, skyscrapers aren't going to make a lot of sense if energy becomes a lot more expensive :)

Re: Holy awesome concept!

I think you forgot to include ", Batman!"

Actually, if you made the entire side of one typical mirrored-glass building able to focus onto ANOTHER similar building, you could get a reasonable amount of sun into the lower tiers. Using two adjacent buildings would give plenty of sun, provided you could orient the focus.

Of course, slogging all that dirt up flights of stairs would be fun. And then again, who is going to run the water pumps to feed this monster?

Nice dream, but not really practical when it's time to power-down. We need to switch to max of 6 stories height for energy. And in CA, they ought to for quakes anyway.

Enough of this bashing the City -

Dense cities are far more energy efficient than you guys claim. Rome (and others) were densely packed at a time before modern energy extraction was even thought of. If you want farms near Manhattan, think about the couple thousand (or more) acres available on the waterfront - it may be either used as or turning into parkland now, but it could be very effective farmland easily. (In a pinch, there's also Central Park, which did - after all - have a working flock of sheep well into the 20th century.) Not to forget all those sub- and exurbs that will no longer be able to support their vastly less efficient lifestyle, many of which are built on prime farmland aching to return to production. As for getting it to and through the city, I faintly remember more people living in Manhattan (actually more densely packed than now) prior to the automobile and/or oil extraction. Fiftty years ago there were still train tracks on the streets (even after the High Line was built), and as a kid I nearly got wiped out by a train on Delaware Avenue (in Philly, but the same idea).

We may not be able to justify air conditioning, but it's a lot more comfortable here in the summer than in the sunbelt. And it's lots more efficient to heat and light a multi-story multi-tenant building than a single family split-level.

If you want a disaster scenario, look to the Southwest and other areas that are the energy gluttons, not the city.

You can certainly grow plants with fluorescents - it's not perfect but they do fine. That's what I used when I was working on my Ph.D. in plant genetics. With respect to the energy dilemma - you don't need anything close to solar intensities to get a lot of plants to grow well, but I agree that major advances in energy production are going to be needed to make this a viable option. (We used approximately 4 - 6 30W fluorescents per square meter.) I would be willing to bet that you could probably use LEDs as well, and realistically that might be the most efficient method because you could focus on wavelengths of light that are actually absorbed by the various phytochromes in the plants (although more study would be needed to determine the effect of single wavelength illumination on the health of plants). The side benefit would be that you could convert other wavelengths of solar energy into electricity to drive the LEDs.

Bashing skyscrapers is not the same thing as bashing the city. Cities should be dense, the denser the better. However, as ancient Rome proved, you don't need skyscrapers to do it. Skyscrapers are energy hogs and in the era of Peak Oil it does not make sense to advocate increasing society's energy intensity.

Build dense, but keep the building height down to something sustainable in a lower energy future.

I would argue that building height (let's say to 20 stories) is a non-factor. Above that, I might agree for a vanity tower like Time Warner Center, etc. Mid-size (and 20 stories is mid-size) are compact, temperature steadying, capable of being water sensible, etc. Yes, elevators use energy, but there is room for great improvement in their efficiency as energy re-users (a la the pulley system noted a few comments above). Or we could all go back to six floor walkups - I lived on the top floor of one, and the great advantage is that it improves your memory - one only forgets to buy milk once.

re: fatbear's first comment--right on. The New Yorker had an article in October (see a snippet here) about how NYC is actually one of the most sustainable places around. And my favorite bit of evidence comes from Sustainlane, which ranks NYC 7 out of 25 on their scale of sustainable cities. Not bad for our megacity!

Still, there will be problems, mostly dealing with the growth and transport of food. Sure, we could try to convert some land back to farmland, but I can't imagine that the soil around here is very good anymore. And 100 story buildings aren't going to work so well if there isn't reliable electricity (though I'm a lot less worried about electricity. I'm not scared of nuclear!) But as pointed out, skyscrapers are bad for other reasons.

Spooky--These vertical farming structures wouldn't have to be very tall, would they? Why can't they just be 6-story buildings too? If we had a lot of them around the city, it could work.

I saw a presentation by the author of this book, Big and Green, at the National Building Museum a year or so ago. I haven't studied the details of his "green" high-rise building designs, but the issue may not be so black and white.

Link to the book:

As others have noted, I also see a problem with equally distributed sunlight and the necessity for articificially powered sunlight...

However, my solution is this:

In order for sunlight to reach all 'floors' maximally, imagine the construction of towers in a series of stacked 'discs' that rotate....

Each disc could thus rotate for more sunlight....and certain parts of the discs could be 'notched' to allow more sunlight to the 'floor' below it, but because of the 'un-notched' portions being greater than half the disc, and due to the number of stacked 'discs'...the total surface area that sunlight could reach would be a far greater multiple of the surface area than that provided by the building's footprint.

That, and because of the angle of incidence of the incoming sunlight, the height between 'floors', and the specially timed rotation, woud also allow better sunlight diffusion..

How could one easily achieve the movement of such massive objects? "Balance, Daniel-son, balance..." Think of a mobile, a wind-chime, or the nine-ton stone gate at Coral Castle in Florida that can be opened and closed using only one finger:

OK - one more time

How do we feed the City? Let's look at the oldtime alternative - forget vertical farms, all we need are trains. There was not that long ago a massive market under the trains in East Harlem; in Philly, before it was beautified, there was the Reading Terminal Market. Each of these could be (and was) supplied by food arriving by train, not by truck. If we look at Ianqui's (and my) favorite Greenmarket (Union Square), most of those farmers live near to a train station upstate (the tracks are still operable all the way up to Albany on the east bank of the Hudson, and the right of way still exists on the west bank - for the most part). Yes, they will need trucks to get to the station, but 10-20 miles is lots easier than driving to the City. There is ample space available near Penn Station (if we don't get the stadium) for a MASSIVE market, if we want it. And it isn't that wasteful to local truck from there to Union Square or other locations in the City.

Once again, I can remember very large electric trucks plying from Washington Sq (Philly, not New York) to the train station at 30th Street, taking The Saturday Evening Post (and other Curtis mags) from the printing plant for distribution nationwide. (These trucks were old even then, with wooden wheels and leather treads.)

Distribution to and within the City of veggies and fruits is not the problem, nor is the farmer upstate. The problem will be the viands. We don't have the East River slaughterhouses anymore, and it would be a shame to tear down the UN to bring them back.

And I have no idea how we will deal with fast foods, which are - really - the lifeblood of the entire country. Frozen distribution is very wasteful, so I think we'd better figure out how to live again on fresh (and/or stored) foods, not the stuff filling the frozen food isles. Once again, a bigger problem for the sub- and exurbs - when I'm upstate (norhtern Dutchess) I'm always amazed at how much food up there is frozen, not fresh, and how cold it is inside the 40,000 sq ft supermarkets. I know Elaine and friends don't consume it, but the vast majority of country folk survive on it - and they have the waistlines to prove it.

frozen food aisles not isles - this new haloscan with server feedback is real slow to read back....

I think most readers of The Oil Drum will agree that we will be in good shape if we can recreate the entire structure of heavy rail, interurban rail, streetcar, and trolley systems that existed in the first part of the 20th century. As Kunstler points out in The Long Emergency, it was once possible to get from Boston to Wisonsin (except for two small gaps in upstate New York) riding on trolleys and interurban rail lines. The systems were extensive and interconnected. Problem is, we spent the last half century energetically destroying this infrastructure in favor of automobiles. Europe, for the most part, has maintained and improved their systems, so they may experience a lot less disruption transportation-wise.

Can it be done? Yes. Can it be done as fast as we need it to be done? Unknown, but I am inclined to be doubtful, and my doubt grows as prices continue to rise and politicians and the general public continue to be unaware of what is really going on.

Re: fast foods, the sooner we are rid of them, the better!

I've been meaning to post about Vertical farms for ages (UnPlanner totued them in some comments threads a month or twoo ago) but I'm still bemused by the sunlight part - multi-level farms don't seem to make much intrinsic sense to me when you look at it from that point of view (although the water and nutrient recycling ideas are cool).

While you can grow stuff under energy efficient LEDs (TreeHugger has had several articles on this which I've linked to in some of my posts) it just doesn't make much sense unless you have cheap energy and little available sunlight. Great for Iceland and parts of Siberia and Alaska perhaps.

Putting small scale farms on all roofs would be a great idea of course (which I'll explore in a post based on WorldChanging's "Green Roofs" articles some time).

And I second fatbear's and Roy's comments about trains.

On the light subject, I just noticed this post at TreeHugger talking about piping natural light into buildings (without using any energy to do so) which might make the vertical farming idea a bit more feasible from the sunlight point of view...

Someone should point out on TreeHugger that Veronica Garcia Hanson's project could have another important application (other than apparently lighting inhumane factory workspaces...)

Big Gav -
To pipe the light into the building, you need a hole or window in the roof big enough to collect the light. Easier just to grow plants on the roof in the first place.

The point I have been making wrt vertical farms is that only a certain amount of light falls on a given land area, and existing farming techniques do a pretty good job of catching it all. In order to significantly increase plant density using multiple levels, you need to have a power source to run the artificial lighting.

How about a terraced structure? While one only has a horizontal planting area equal to the footprint of the ground floor of such a ziggurat, one could capture additional sunlight by planting vining or espaliered crops against the vertical surfaces. Exhaustion of the soil, though, would seem to be a problem. . .

While this is all fun as an academic exercise, I think it ignores the fact that the value of a parcel of land in the city should always be much more than that in the country. It is almost a tautology. While small scale urban "farming" projects should not be dismissed, they cannot feed the poplace.

Fatbear is correct in that the efficiency of rail transport could feed the city. Heck, London had a population of one million in 1800, with the principal food transport being by ox-cart or "on the hoof".

We also need to look at rural America's infrastructure--it is no longer as self-sufficient as it once was

Assuming a south facing terrace, what one gains in area on the south side is lost in area shaded to the north.

You are absolutely right about the necessity to rebuild rural America along historical self-sufficient lines. Most of rural America now is part of the cash economy using factory farms, and is every bit as dependent on oil-intensive industry as our cities are.

One other point about vertical farms - I live on the 12th floor, with a small (7x9 or so) south-facing balcony - when we first moved in, we tried to grow some temperate zone plants - totally dessicated by the wind; the only thing that stays moderately healthy is geraniums, etc. - tall buildings create their own airstreams (walk around one and you'll get the point) which are more active the higher you go - if you want to grow anything without wasting water (and lots of it), you've either got to use windbreaks or glass walls