Not many companies—let alone a startup!—can tout that they have the ability to help farmers grow eight to 12 times more produce per acre, while using 95 percent less water. PowerGrow, one of 45 start-up companies housed in the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology, builds patented, renewable energy-powered, high-tech glass commercial greenhouses that give growers the opportunity to maximize yield, conserve capital, preserve natural resources, solve labor problems and earn greater profits.
PowerGrow is a one-stop-shop. The startup designs, finances, builds, owns and operates greenhouses that allow farming operations to deliver locally-grown, fresh produce 365 days a year, regardless of weather.
“We provide all the capital for the facilities, eliminating capital investment and debt for the grower and enabling them to generate three to four times greater profit per pound of produce,” said Sean Lyle, CEO and president of PowerGrow. “On a 15-acre high-tech glass greenhouse, we reduce the capital contributions from the grower by approximately $25 million.”
The company dramatically reduces the capital cost to build the greenhouse through its solar greenhouse patent that was approved this past November. The solar patent allows PowerGrow to apply the Federal Investment Tax Credit for solar to the construction costs of their greenhouses and the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System bonus depreciation on the assets.
Eliminating Risks, Increasing Profits
The company’s goal is to enable farmers to produce indoor crops—such as peppers, cucumbers, loose leaf greens, tomatoes and strawberries—anytime, anywhere and under any weather condition. A completely controlled growing environment eliminates all weather jeopardy, reduces the water required for optimal plant growth, lessens disease risk and removes the need for pesticides.
This presents a tremendous opportunity to change where and how produce is grown and delivered around the world. “We can take fallowed or underutilized land that may be in a region with a short growing season, poor soil quality or limited water availability and turn it into optimal farmland,” said Lyle.
PowerGrow ensures 24/7 power capabilities with on-site solar tracking systems and gas co-generation for combined heat and power. Each site has an anaerobic digester to monetize the organic waste and turn it into biogas for the co-generation system.
“By not connecting to the electrical grid, we dramatically reduce development costs and timelines. Our goal is to deliver a zero-waste, carbon-neutral facility for every grower,” said Lyle.
These next-generation greenhouses also give farmers the flexibility to grow crops in close proximity to their customers (i.e., Whole Foods, Kroger, Costco), minimizing the shipping and transportation costs and earning greater profits with locally-grown produce. This can result in a significant increase in profit margin, as well as a nearly 100 percent decrease in their carbon footprint. The company can help reduce produce waste by more than 50 percent, from farm to table.
“We partner with growers to identify the most ideal locations within 50 miles of major population markets and adjacent to retail produce distribution centers, which enables the small and regional grower to be more competitive in the market,” said Lyle.
Additionally, the company is partnering with Feeding America, a non-profit that delivers food to more than 300 food banks across the country. Any produce grown in the facility that is not fit for sale to market goes into a different bin and picked up by Feeding America. This offers a significant tax deduction for the grower and provides fresh, healthy produce for the Feeding America food banks.
Ensuring Financial Security
When a potential client is ready to evaluate indoor growing models, the PowerGrow team makes it a priority to meet the unique needs of each specific grower. PowerGrow prepares a comparison model of indoor versus outdoor growing and financial projections, per crop type. The model provides multiple growing scenarios and identifies the most profitable option for each grower.
“We simplify the decision-making process for growers by showing them detailed cost, revenue and profit projections for growing specific crops indoors and outdoors for any region in the country,” said Lyle. Using tomatoes as an example, Lyle described how 15 acres of high-tech glass greenhouses can produce equivalent yield of 150-250 acres outdoors, while saving over 95 million gallons of water every year and delivering three to four times greater earnings indoors.
Additionally, the company keeps their costs affordable so farms of all sizes can benefit from the company’s innovative solutions. PowerGrow’s Greenhouse as a Service™ is delivered through a Greenhouse Lease and a Power Purchase Agreement. Growers only pay for 1) the cost per square foot of the space they are leasing; and 2) the power they consume, as there are no demand or capacity charges since they are not tied to the grid.
Creating a Supreme Growing Environment
With their solar greenhouse patent already approved, PowerGrow is working on three additional solutions in order to optimize greenhouse performance, plant yield and grower profits. These solutions include a Phase Change Material to minimize thermal energy exchange, a glass nano-coating to control light wave lengths for optimal plant growth and an Internet-of-Things Machine Learning Software Platform to give growers visibility from seed to store. The startup also has a new Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) application that provides solar electricity and thermal energy generation that almost perfectly maps to the electricity and thermal load of the greenhouse. This CSP solution dramatically reduces the thermal demand and energy costs.
Because energy and labor costs make up more than half of the operating expenses of a high-tech glass greenhouse operation, PowerGrow hopes that their involvement and participation in the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology will foster future collaborations with others associated with the incubator.
“We’ve been in the Center since January and have already benefitted tremendously,” said Lyle. “We look forward to working more closely with the Center’s sponsors, as well as other Western Growers’ members, to learn more about their businesses and better understand how we can help ensure their long-term success. Together with the Center, we want to continue to drive agtech innovation and enable growers to rapidly adapt to ever-changing agriculture markets.”
PowerGrow plans to break ground on its first two sites by December and be fully operational in the first half of 2018. They are currently developing projects in California, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, Illinois, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
“Our true value is in risk mitigation,” said Lyle. “We eliminate a growers’ greatest risk, the weather, by migrating them indoors into a completely controlled growing environment. We then take on all the asset performance and debt-service risk of the facility. We focus on what we do best, which is building and operating renewable-powered, energy- and water-efficient facilities, and we enable growers to focus on what they do best, which is grow healthy, locally-grown produce for America.”