6 Questions with Lighting Science’s Mortensen on Benefits and Challenges in Indoor Ag

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Randy Mortensen is executive vice president at Lighting Science, a lighting manufacturer active in the indoor agriculture market. Ahead of speaking at the Indoor Ag-Con in Las Vegas in April, Mortensen tells AgFunderNews about the benefits and challenges of LED lighting for indoor agriculture. 

Randy Mortensen
Randy Mortensen

How have you seen the indoor agriculture market develop?

The changes and technological advances have been remarkable in recent years. I grew up in rural Minnesota and come from an ag background. Early in my career, I was an agriculture banker and always had a passion for making improvements in the production of food. LED lighting truly lends itself to the more organic or holistic approach to food production and energy efficiency. So it’s been very interesting for me to see the rapid advancement of technology domestically and globally. Recently, I’ve been intrigued to learn that our friends in Japan, Taiwan and the Middle East are probably five to seven years ahead of any advancements we’ve made here in North America, especially when it comes to PFALs (Plant Factories w/Artificial Lighting).

Why do you think that is?

I’m still in pursuit of that. Japan and other Asian countries are more densely populated so they’re making rapid developments out of necessity, whereas in North America we have sufficient land mass and transportation infrastructure, allowing for produce and other food items to be transported thousands of miles. Frankly I see there to be a huge opportunity for the widespread elimination of herbicides and pesticides, the introduction of effective water conversation techniques, and in general more efficient production of food. And I see this rapidly advancing in the next two to four years.

So where does Lighting Science come into all of this?

We design, manufacture, and distribute energy-efficient LED lights and there’s a rapid movement towards using them in indoor agricultural operations. The limitation in the past has been cost when compared to traditional forms of lighting, but that gap is narrowing rapidly. The burgeoning market is coming to realize that buying decisions should be made by judging the return-on-investment (ROI) instead of only considering the upfront capital costs. If we’re all in this for the long term, we should analyze financials on a five to 10 year ROI, instead of the 90-day basis that many do.

Traditional lighting used for indoor agriculture is a high pressure sodium light which will usually cost around $450 per unit. An LED fixture may be $1,500, but the savings on using LEDs amounts to around a 40 percent reduction in kilowatt hour consumption, plus the near-term and long-term maintenance costs are significantly less overall.

What about the impact on crop yield of using LEDs?

This depends on the quantity and quality of the spectrum of light you’re using. I think too many LED companies are overpromising and under-delivering. This is giving the LED industry a negative image, but that’s improving every day and in the last six months I’m hearing from most growers that they’re becoming more confident about switching to well-designed LED products. It’s still a matter of time though as many are concerned about potentially sacrificing yields.

How are you overcoming this?

Every day we have a growing number of successful results and we’re gaining a very loyal following. It’s really a matter of the broader industry taking a new look at bundling technologies, leveraging automation, understanding the technology advancements, and coming to the realization that the decision-making process is becoming a financial sale more than a single technology purchase. We’re also expanding on the development of specific lighting recipes for particular plants or strains within a family of plants, which is then passed along to growers, assisting them with increasing yields. We know what color spectrum offers the most appropriate lighting recipe to increase THC content or cannabinoids in a specific strain, for example. We’re working on these lighting recipes very aggressively, as it’s important for us to differentiate ourselves from being just another LED manufacturer.

Are there any obvious lighting recipes?

LSG has a team of professionals striving to dig into this in a very rapid way. We’re also partnering with institutions such as the University of Guelph in Canada to study lighting together, in order to leverage experience across the board.

But really what we want to emphasize is the efficiency gained by implementing LED technologies over traditional lighting. Traditional lighting produces twice as much heat as an LED fixture does, so by switching to LEDs the operator is not only saving energy on the cost of lighting, but also on costs associated with cooling a facility. We’re seeing the cost of installing HVAC units is often 50 percent less on a new build or a remodel. It is also exciting to watch electric utility companies embracing the energy efficient technologies and offering rebates to incentivize more efficient energy consumption, so there’s a significant movement in the industry to reward growers who are focused on reducing overall energy consumption.

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