Study Finds Plants Would Grow Well in Solar Cell Greenhouses

diagram of a solar-powered greenhouse

A recent study shows that lettuce can be grown in greenhouses that filter out wavelengths of light used to generate solar power, demonstrating the feasibility of using see-through solar panels in greenhouses to generate electricity.

“We were a little surprised – there was no real reduction in plant growth or health,” says Heike Sederoff, co-corresponding author of the study and a professor of plant biology at North Carolina State University. “It means the idea of integrating transparent solar cells into greenhouses can be done.”

Because plants do not use all of the wavelengths of light for photosynthesis, researchers have explored the idea of creating semi-transparent organic solar cells that primarily absorb wavelengths of light that plants don’t rely on, and incorporating those solar cells into greenhouses. Earlier work from NC State focused on how much energy solar-powered greenhouses could produce. Depending on the design of the greenhouse, and where it is located, solar cells could make many greenhouses energy neutral – or even allow them to generate more power than they use.

But, until now, it wasn’t clear how these semi-transparent solar panels might affect greenhouse crops.

To address the issue, researchers grew crops of red leaf lettuce (Lactuca sativa) in greenhouse chambers for 30 days – from seed to full maturity. The growing conditions, from temperature and water to fertilizer and CO2 concentration, were all constant – except for light.

A control group of lettuces was exposed to the full spectrum of white light. The rest of the lettuces were dived into three experimental groups. Each of those groups was exposed to light through different types of filters that absorbed wavelengths of light equivalent to what different types of semi-transparent solar cells would absorb.

“The total amount of light incident on the filters was the same, but the color composition of that light was different for each of the experimental groups,” says Harald Ade, co-corresponding author of the study and the Goodnight Innovation Distinguished Professor of Physics at NC State.

“Specifically, we manipulated the ratio of blue light to red light in all three filters to see how it affected plant growth,” Sederoff says.

To determine the effect of removing various wavelengths of light, the researchers assessed a host of plant characteristics. For example, the researchers paid close attention to visible characteristics that are important to growers, grocers and consumers, such as leaf number, leaf size, and how much the lettuces weighed. But they also assessed markers of plant health and nutritional quality, such as how much CO2 the plants absorbed and the levels of various antioxidants.

“Not only did we find no meaningful difference between the control group and the experimental groups, we also didn’t find any significant difference between the different filters,” says Brendan O’Connor, co-corresponding author of the study and an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NC State.

“There is also forthcoming work that delves into greater detail about the ways in which harvesting various wavelengths of light affects biological processes for lettuces, tomatoes and other crops,” Sederoff says.

“This is promising for the future of solar-powered greenhouses,” Ade says. “Getting growers to use this technology would be a tough argument if there was a loss of productivity. But now it is a simple economic argument about whether the investment in new greenhouse technology would be offset by energy production and savings.”

“Based on the number of people who have contacted me about solar-powered greenhouses when we’ve published previous work in this space, there is a lot of interest from many growers,” O’Connor says. “I think that interest is only going to grow. We’ve seen enough proof-of-concept prototypes to know this technology is feasible in principle, we just need to see a company take the leap and begin producing to scale.”

The paper, “Balancing Crop Production and Energy Harvesting in Organic Solar Powered Greenhouses,” appears in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science. Co-lead authors of the paper are NC State Ph.D. students Melodi Charles and Eshwar Ravishankar. The paper was co-authored by Yuan Xiong, a research assistant at NC State; Reece Henry and Ronald Booth, Ph. D. students at NC State; Jennifer Swift, John Calero and Sam Cho, technicians at NC State; Taesoo Kim, a research scientist at NC State; Yunpeng Qin and Carr Hoi Yi Ho, postdoctoral researchers at NC State; Franky So, Walter and Ida Freeman Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at NC State; Aram Amassian, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at NC State; Carole Saravitz, a research associate professor of plant biology at NC State; Jeromy Rech and Wei You of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Alex H. Balzer and Natalie Stingelin of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The work was done with support from the National Science Foundation under grants 1639429 and 1905901; the Office of Naval Research, under grants N00014-20-1-2183, N00014-17-1-2242 and N00014-17-1-2204; North Carolina State University; and NextGen Nano Limited.

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Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Balancing Crop Production and Energy Harvesting in Organic Solar Powered Greenhouses”

Authors: Eshwar Ravishankar, Melodi Charles, Yuan Xiong, Reece Henry, Jennifer Swift, John Calero, Sam Cho, Ronald E. Booth, Taesoo Kim, Yunpeng Qin, Carr Hoi Yi Ho, Franky So, Aram Amassian, Carole Saravitz, Harald Ade, Heike Sederoff and Brendan T. O’Connor, North Carolina State University; Jeromy Rech and Wei You, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Alex H. Balzer and Natalie Stingelin, Georgia Institute of Technology

Published: March 17, Cell Reports Physical Science

Abstract: Adding semitransparent organic solar cells (ST-OSCs) to a greenhouse structure enables simultaneous plant cultivation and electricity generation thereby reducing the greenhouse energy demand. However, there is a need to establish the impact of such systems on plant growth and indoor climate and to optimize system tradeoffs. In this work, we consider plant growth under OSCs and system relevant design. First, we evaluate the growth of red leaf lettuce under ST-OSC filters and compare the impact of three different OSC active layers that have unique transmittance. We find no significant differences in the fresh weight and chlorophyll content of the lettuce grown under these OSC filters. In addition, OSCs provide an opportunity for further light and thermal management of the greenhouse through device design and optical coatings. The OSCs can thus impact plant growth, power generation, and thermal load of the greenhouse, and this design trade-space is reviewed and exemplified.

This post was originally published in NC State News.