Editor’s Note: Patrick Flynn created Urbanvine.co in 2016 to help urban dwellers learn how to start urban farming without any previous experience. As the site grew, he discovered that “urban farming” was actually a general term that can include a wide variety of concepts, including grow lights and hydroponics, topics which the site now covers in depth.
The horticultural lighting market is growing, and growing rapidly. According to a September press release from Report Linker, a market research firm specializing in agribusiness, the horticultural lighting market is estimated grow from a $2.43 billion market this year to $6.21 billion in 2023.
One of the key factors driving current market sector growth is increased development of LED grow light technology. LEDs (light emitting diodes) were first developed in the 1950s as a smaller and longer-lasting source of light compared to the traditional incandescent light bulb invented by Thomas Edison in 1879.
LEDs last longer, give off less heat, and are more efficient converting energy to light compared to other types of lights, all features that can result in higher yields and profits for indoor growers.
But until recently, LEDs were only used to grow plants indoors experimentally, largely because the cost was still too high for commercial businesses. Many commercial growers still use HID (High Intensity Discharge) lights such as High Pressure Sodium, Metal Halide, and Ceramic Metal Halide; all lights that have a high power output but are less durable than LED lights, generate far more heat, and have less customizable light spectra.
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Today, LEDs are fast becoming the dominant horticultural lighting solution. This is due primarily to the one-million fold decrease in fabrication cost of semiconductor chips used to make LED lights since 1954.
For investors more familiar with field-based agriculture, it can certainly be a minefield to know where LED lighting technology for horticulture is going in the future. Although it is no longer the “early days” of LED technology development, current trends are still shaping the future of LED technology.
So what does the intelligent agtech investor need to know about the current state and future of LED grow light technology?
I interviewed Jeff Mastin, director of R&D at Total Grow LED Lighting, to discuss what the future of LED grow light technology for agriculture looks like, and how investors can use current trends to their advantage in the future.
What is your background – how did you get involved in grow light technology at Total Grow?
The company behind TotalGrow is called Venntis Technologies. Venntis has, and still does, specialize in integrating touch-sensing semiconductor technologies into applications.
Most people don’t realize LEDs are semiconductors; you can also use them for touch-sensing technologies, so there’s a strong bridge to agricultural LED technology.
Some of the biggest technical challenges in utilizing LEDs effectively for agriculture include LED glaring, shadowing and color separation.
We have used our expertise in touch-sensing LEDs to expand into horticultural LEDs, and we have developed technology that addresses the above challenges better, giving better control over the spectrum that the LED makes and the directional output of the light in a way that a standard LED by itself can’t do.
My personal background is in biology. When TotalGrow started exploring the horticultural world, that’s where being a biologist was a natural fit to take a lead on the science and the research side of the development process for the product; that was about 7 years ago now.
If you were going to distill your technical focus into trends that you’re seeing in the horticultural lighting space, what are the main trends to keep an eye on?
The horticultural lighting industry is really becoming revolutionized because of LEDs. Less than 10 years ago, LEDs in the horticultural world were mainly a research tool and a novelty.
In the past, they were not efficient enough and they were definitely not affordable enough yet to really consider them an economical general commercial light source.
But that is very quickly changing. The efficiencies are going up and prices down and they are really right now hitting the tipping point where for a lot of applications, but definitely not all applications, the LED world is starting to take over horticulture and indoor agriculture.
How do you view the translation of those trends into actionable points? For investors or technology developers in the agriculture technology space, how do they make sure that the LED light technology they are investing in isn’t going to be obsolete in a year or two?
With LEDs, the key question is still cost-efficiency, and there’s only so far the technology can improve.
Why? There are physical limitations. You can’t make a 100% efficient product that turns every bit of electricity into photons of light. At this point, the efficiency level of the top of line LEDs are up over 50%.
Can we ever get up to 70 or 80%? Probably not any time soon with an end-product, not one that’s going to be affordable and economical generally speaking.
So to answer your question, it’s not a category where you’re going to say, “well this is obsolete, I can get something three times better now.” The performance improvements will be more marginal in the future.
Ten years from now the cost will be cheaper. But that again doesn’t make current LED technologies obsolete. In terms of that fear, I don’t think people have to worry about current LED light technologies becoming obsolete.
In a large commercial vertical farming set up, what is the ballpark cost of horticultural LEDs currently?
To give just an order of magnitude sort of number, you’re probably going to be someplace in the $30 per square foot number for lights for a large facility. It can be half that or it can be double that.
That’s just talking within the realm of common vertical farming plants like greens and herbs, or other plants similar in size and lighting needs.
If you start talking about tomatoes or medicinal plants, then the ability to use higher light levels and have the plants make good use of it skyrockets. You can go four times higher with some of those other plants, and for good reason.
What type of horticultural lighting applications are LEDs still not the best solution for now and in the foreseeable future?
There are at least 3 areas where LEDs still may not make sense now and in the near future.
First, if the LED lights are not used often enough. The more hours per year the lights are used, the more quickly they return on their investment from power savings and reduced maintenance. Some applications only need a few weeks of lighting per year, which makes a cheaper solution appropriate.
Second, in some greenhouse applications, LED’s may not be the best choice for some time to come. Cheaper lights like high-pressure sodium have more of a role in greenhouses where hours of use are less and higher hang heights are possible. (Many greenhouses will still benefit strongly from LEDs, but the economics and other considerations make it important to consider both options in greenhouses.)
Lastly, some plants are not the best in vertical farming styles of growing where LEDs have their most drastic advantages. At least at this point it is not common to attempt to grow larger fruiting plants like tomatoes or cucumbers totally indoors, though when attempted that is still more practical with LEDs than legacy lights.
To learn more about Total Grow, visit www.totalgrowlight.com