Electric Cooperatives collaborate with University of Florida to conduct “Smart Garden” project

Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative (SVEC), Seminole Electric Cooperative (Seminole), the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), and the University of Florida (UF) North Florida Research and Education Center (NFREC)-Suwannee Valley, have come together to conduct a new indoor agriculture research project in Live Oak, Florida.

Indoor agriculture is a method of growing crops or plants, usually on a large scale, entirely indoors. This method of farming often implements growing methods such as hydroponics and utilizes artificial lights to provide plants with the nutrients and light levels required for growth, allowing plants to be grown all year long. The goal of this project is to understand the operational, technological, economic, sustainability, and environmental characteristics and impacts that indoor agriculture may have on the electric grid, and for supporting sustainable communities year-round.

Jon Little, director of communications at SVEC said, “We are pleased to be part of this cooperative project. Because much of our community’s economy is based on agriculture, we are excited by the opportunity to help evaluate a process that might be a new way for our local farmers to grow their crops.”

The indoor agriculture facility – a 40-foot-long shipping container equipped with plumbing, temperature control and efficient lighting – was successfully installed at The University of Florida North Florida Research & Education Center-Suwannee Valley on December 14, 2021. The kale and other leafy greens grown in the facility will be donated to the Florida Gateway Foodbank in Lake City, Florida.

“Seminole is proud to partner with SVEC, EPRI, and UF to research indoor agriculture,” said Ryan Hart, director of communications and energy policy at Seminole. “This project will study our ability to use LED lights in shipping containers to grow food while running our electric grid more efficiently.”

“Indoor farming can offer healthy, locally grown produce year-round in any community, including disadvantaged neighborhoods, while increasing yield, decreasing energy required for transportation and using water more efficiently,” said Rob Chapman, EPRI senior vice president of Energy Delivery and Customer Solutions. “We’re proud to participate in this project, working with collaborators, the local community, and the next generation of farmers to improve sustainability efforts.”

SVEC and Seminole are two of about a dozen utilities nationwide participating in this study designed to help utilities and society better understand indoor food production. Through automated revenue grade monitoring, researchers at EPRI will evaluate how energy loads, water use, and other controlled operational parameters and exterior conditions vary the consumption of these facilities and locations. This and other trackable data will also help address questions regarding distribution planning, rate design, grid initialization, and larger societal benefits.

While indoor farming is not new, innovations around vertical farming (i.e., use of vertical space to layer production) and improved hydroponic farming methods helps eliminate or reduce the use of many components of traditional farming, such as topsoil, herbicides, and pesticides. Among its many benefits, indoor farming can also save up to 95% of water and can yield 50% or more produce per square foot than traditional farming. This is achieved by using efficient electrical lighting, HVAC, pumps, and dehumidification technologies to create stable microclimates that use minimal water and soil to deliver year-round produce.

“We are very excited to add this state-of-the-art technology with this indoor hydroponic container to our research, teaching, and extension capacity here at our Research and Education Center,” said Bob Hochmuth, regional specialized extension agent and assistant center director of UF/IFAS NFREC-Suwannee Valley.

A ribbon cutting event will be held for the Smart Garden project on April 7.

Above: SVEC lineworker prepares to install the Indoor Ag Facility’s electric meter.

Above: Smart Garden Indoor Ag Facility.

About Seminole Electric Cooperative
Based in Tampa, Florida, Seminole is one of the country’s largest generation and transmission cooperatives. Its purpose is to provide essential wholesale services to its Members through a balanced, diversified portfolio of safe, affordable, and reliable energy resources. Seminole and its Members collectively serve 1.8 million individuals and businesses in 42 Florida counties. For more information, visit https://www.seminole-electric.com/.

About Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative (SVEC)
SVEC is a not-for-profit cooperative that provides safe, affordable and reliable electric service to over 28,000 consumers in Florida’s Columbia, Hamilton, Lafayette and Suwannee counties. svec-coop.com

About University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS)
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. ifas.ufl.edu  | @UF_IFAS

About EPRI
Founded in 1972, EPRI is the world’s preeminent independent, non-profit energy research and development organization, with offices around the world. EPRI’s trusted experts collaborate with more than 450 companies in 45 countries, driving innovation to ensure the public has clean, safe, reliable, affordable, and equitable access to electricity across the globe. Together, we are shaping the future of energy.