Humans learned how to produce their own food a few thousand years ago and it is this ability that allowed for the development of civilization and the end of the hunting and gathering as the sole means of sustenance.
We have come a long way since that change in man’s choice of survival efforts.
Currently agriculture is feeding billions of people on this timeworn world and it is only our advances in the crop sciences, updated techniques and equipment that have allowed us this proficiency.
Mass food production requires large amounts of hydrocarbons for energy.
Fuel to get the crop in the ground, harvested, hauled to the terminal, delivered to the processing plants and finally fuel to get it to the store shelf.
As long as people need to eat, and until we develop alternatives, hydrocarbons will be one of the most important commodities available to man. Simply put, without large machines, and the fuel it takes to run them, millions will starve, period.
New uses of old technologies are allowing a little relief to be brought to the hydrocarbon consumption challenge.
Hydroponics which is the growing of plants without the use of soil by the use of nutrient rich solutions is a cost effective way of growing produce within a small footprint.
It is also more productive, than the same amount of area outside in the elements. As for old, it was first mentioned in a book published in 1627 by Sir Francis Bacon. Aeroponics is a type of hydroponic growing system whereby a fine mist keeps the root system of the plants misted with a nutrient solution.
This process has the advantages over other hydroponic methods as it uses 65% less water and 75% less nutrients.
NASA research also shows an 80% increase in the plants dry weight biomass when compared to conventional hydroponic systems.
Greenhouses are notorious consumers of fuel due to their need for light and heat in the cooler months of the year.
What if we could heat these greenhouses and supply the electricity by using waste products?
Biomass constituents from wood, agricultural, or municipal waste can be burned in super-efficient boilers to provide the heating requirements of the complex; and the steam generated can provide the electricity needed for lighting, pumps and fans.
Solar thermal and solar electric can be used for power and heat in the months in between the depths of winter and the height of summer as a supplement to, or replacement for, the combustion of the biomass materials.
Alberta has seen the advent of greenhouses using the waste heat from industrial processes near the communities of Joffre and Princess.
The advantages of produce grown close to home are freshness, efficiency, and a reduction in hydrocarbon fuel consumption used to get the product to market.
With the power and heat being produced from alternate energy sources, like recycled heat and solar, food costs can be kept low enough to be competitive and maybe someday it will become the norm.
Lorne Oja is an energy consultant, power engineer and a partner in a company that installs solar panels, wind turbines and energy control products in Central Alberta. He built his first off-grid home in 2003 and is in the planning stage for his second.