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An energy conundrum: how low can you go?

March 16, 2012  By Gary Jones

An energy conundrum: how low can you go?

While nuclear power doesn’t form much of what keeps our industry ticking, radioactivity in the seawater at Fukushima’s nuclear plant that reached 7.5 million times the legal limit after the distressing events in Japan has reignited debate about nuclear’s safety credentials.

Set against this, anti-coal lobbyist George Monbiot questions the claims of anti-nuclear activists who say the Chernobyl disaster led to 985,000 deaths and “will continue to slaughter people for generations to come.”(1) He claims these figures are false. The International Atomic Energy Agency claims Chernobyl resulted in 56 direct deaths and up to 4,000 subsequent deaths since, but there have been on average 5,000 deaths in coal mining accidents in China alone each year for the last decade.(2) “Evidence” is often confusing.


While our industry rarely discusses complexities of nuclear and coal energy, we do use electricity so generated and therefore shouldn’t ignore the debate. For greenhouse heating, many of us turn to our “comfort fuel” of choice – natural gas. But that, too, has issues. “Rabobank, the main bank financing the Dutch greenhouse industry, advises that natural gas prices will remain high” and “the bank expects that on average, natural gas prices will increase in the next two decades. The current price is relatively low. Geothermal innovations will also help make the sector more sustainable.”(3) Rabobank will invest more in sustainable energy projects, especially geothermal projects, for which it has developed a special financing policy.

■ In the Santa Maria Valley in California, Windset Farms, which operates three growing facilities (two in the Fraser Valley, B.C., one in Las Vegas), are building two 32-acre, 28-foot-tall greenhouses with processing/packaging facilities, and has two more identical greenhouses planned.(4) This 128 acres “will be the most sustainable greenhouses in the world,” Steve Newell, president and chief executive officer of Windset Farms, said in the Lompoc Record.(4)

“You have enough light in the winter months to carry a crop through the entire year,” Newell said. “It’s nonstop, continuous production.”(4) Recycling and reuse of purchased city and roof-collected rainwater and condensation from outside and inside the greenhouses, and use of carbon dioxide for both growing and energy cogeneration, Newell says is “very, very energy efficient and the most sustainable type of farming.”(4) It will certainly produce a lot of welcome food.

Others suggest that we really must start planning on growing food using as little energy as possible. Maybe it’s easier to do in the warmth of California. While not referring specifically to the Windset project, Vancouver-based architect, strategic planner and critical thinker Richard Balfour suggests that large-scale monoculture greenhouses are “a huge Greenwash myth based on false economy. While greenhouses can multiply yields 10 to 20 times in such places as rainy Vancouver, the cost is only warranted when supplies of glass and heat and light energy are low. As we enter the end of oil and astronomical energy price increases, it gets worse.”5

■ Vancouver is a far cry from hot California, but he has a point. He’s even less enthusiastic of the “multi-storey greenhouse nonsense,” saying that the “cost of the building is not justified/recoverable and the embodied energy (is) not justified.”

Dr. Kent Mullinix is another advocate of returning to low energy input agriculture. Many farm products require a five-to-one (or sometimes higher!) ratio of energy invested to energy returned, instead of being net energy producers. Meat is worse – beef is 50:1! As energy input costs keep rising, some argue that the system is heading for collapse. Some communities, such as Surrey, British Columbia, are already researching local community agricultural systems, lured partly by the promise of more jobs.

Detractors of such models say we don’t know enough about the realities of climate change on food production patterns, so putting all our eggs in the field vegetable basket may be another mistake. Rooftop greenhouses, such as Lufa Farms in Montreal, fuelled by renewable options (Rabobank’s geothermal perhaps?) may be another solution.

The point is, there are many viewpoints, each able to argue their case and withstand reasonable scrutiny. B.C. Hydro had an “Energy Fix” contest that rewards one small to medium-sized business with a makeover of up to $35,000 in energy efficient equipment. If only the energy fix were that simple.
1 George Monbiot, The Guardian, April 5, 2011.
2 Vancouver Sun, April 4, 2011.
3 From Doug Peters, market development advisor, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
4 Brian Bullock, “High Tech Hydroponics coming to SM,” Lompoc
5 Richard Balfour, Balfour & Associates, Strategic Planning. ■

Gary Jones is chair of production horticulture at Kwantlen University, Langley, British Columbia. He serves on several industry committees and welcomes comments at

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