Energy - Environment - Mobility

3 innovative greenhouses to address climate change challenges and ensure crop production

Published on 28 August 2023 Read 25 min

Climate change poses significant challenges in farming with the increase in frequency and severity of adverse weather events. According to the United Nations, the Earth’s temperature has risen 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, leading to drastic changes in weather events such as heatwaves, droughts, and floods. These growing climate challenges could threaten traditional farming due to its reliance on natural resources and its vulnerability to extreme weather events, potentially leading to reduced crop yields, soil degradation, and water scarcity, ultimately impacting global food security. Therefore, the agriculture sector needs to innovate to develop resilient practices that can adapt to these challenges. One area offering promising and innovative solutions is new greenhouse technologies, that incorporate innovations in AI, robotics, solar panels, and water desalination.

In this article, Alcimed offers you an overview of three innovative greenhouses and their ability to address these growing climate challenges and enhance crop production. We aim to inspire further development of solutions that ensure food security in the face of climate change.

Innovative greenhouse n°1: seawater greenhouses to overcome water scarcity

Seawater greenhouse is an innovative technology that uses seawater and sunlight to tackle water scarcity and high temperatures commonly faced by farmers in arid, coastal regions. The technology utilises a unique desalination method to regulate the temperature within the greenhouse. Its closed-loop system resembles the natural water cycle, driving seawater into the greenhouse to cool and humidify the air which then evaporates and condenses into freshwater that is subsequently used for irrigation. The resulting cooler humid environment allows all-year round crop production at a higher yield and quality with less water required and reduced transpiration among crops.

A company called ‘Seawater Greenhouse’ designs these greenhouses for hot, coastal regions and has five projects worldwide. Their first pilot project commenced in 1992 in Tenerife, Canary Islands demonstrated the potential of the technology for other arid regions. One of their projects in Oman reported that the Seawater Greenhouse consumed four to eight times less water compared to conventional greenhouses. This significantly minimizes the usage and dependency of freshwater sources. The company also aims to achieve ‘zero discharge’ by transforming the leftover brine into salt, making this more sustainable and eco-friendlier compared to the conventional desalination techniques. Despite the technology’s potential, it has faced challenges in some regions due to conflicts with existing policies and partnerships. For example, their first pilot project received funding setbacks from stakeholders who were concerned about its potential to compete directly with European growers who hold a monopoly under the Common Agricultural Policy. Overcoming such local political and economic barriers would be crucial to implement this technology.

Innovative greenhouse n°2: transparent infrared solar panels to harvest energy

Greenhouses in extreme weather conditions often result in high energy costs from temperature regulation. To improve energy efficiency for these greenhouses, solar energy is explored to generate electricity. One promising solution is the transparent solar panel which can capture both ultraviolet and infrared light and convert them into electricity while acting as an effective insulator to maintain the temperature within the greenhouse. Unlike the conventional solar panel that is opaque, it allows visible light to pass through so the need for additional lighting can be minimized. Additionally, the clean energy generated from the sun can reduce energy reliance and consumption from the grid for the heating or cooling of the greenhouse, particularly in extreme environments where energy grids are vulnerable due to disruptions to supply and electricity transmissions.

One example is the ClearVue greenhouse developed by Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. It is the first clear solar glass greenhouse that uses transparent solar panels. This greenhouse can maintain stable temperatures and safeguard crops against extreme weather conditions. By harnessing energy from the sun, it can reduce reliance on traditional energy sources, lowering operating costs while achieving higher crop yield rates of up to 20-30%. This can be useful for farmers to mitigate the impact of extreme weather conditions on their crops, while contributing to sustainable farming practices. However, the current solar photovoltaic efficiency of this technology is only 1%, compared to traditional solar panels that can go over 20%. Thus, further research and development to increase efficiency is important as its potential benefits would lay the groundwork for more resistant, climate-friendly greenhouses in the future.

Learn more about how to build a climate resilience strategy >

Innovative greenhouse n°3: artificial intelligence to collect data and improve precision in agriculture

With the increasing prevalence of extreme weather conditions, the use of advanced methods in agriculture such as artificial intelligence (AI) for crop management has become more popular. AI in agriculture can provide valuable insights such as weather predictions and forecasting expected crop yield, estimating optimal planting and harvesting times, tracking crop diseases etc. This enables farmers to foresee unexpected situations and allows them to make timely, data-driven decisions to offset any potential impact of unfavourable weather conditions. Additionally, AI can promote precision and sustainability in agriculture practices, using resources more efficiently while achieving higher yield and quality.

In 2015, a start-up called Iron Ox based in California launched an 8,000 square feet indoor autonomous farm that employs AI and robotics to optimize growing conditions. The farm continually collects data to allow precise input adjustments, improving yield prediction accuracy, crop productivity and growth efficiency. Apart from that, they have robots acting as farmers and tending to each crop’s needs. This level of precision contributes to more efficient resource use, waste reduction, and increased crop yields. However, the adoption of AI, especially in smaller farms still faces challenges due to data integration issues and shortage of skilled labour. Nonetheless, the future of AI and robotics in agriculture is promising with its ability to help growers to precisely adjust environmental controls and increase the resilience of greenhouses to changing weather conditions.

Innovative advances in farming are crucial to mitigate the impact of changing and more extreme weather conditions. Thanks to these technologies, greenhouses can better optimize the use of resources vulnerable to climate change, and build a more robust, sustainable food system. However, to scale up these technologies, it is important to consider their respective challenges outlined above. You are interested to explore new technologies for your sustainability efforts? Alcimed can support you in your projects, don’t hesitate to contact us!

About the author, 

Charmaine Ng, Consultant in Alcimed’s Life Science team in Singapore

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