Solar-powered greenhouses may not seem futuristic these days. But a statewide network of them that grow enough food to feed an entire state and store energy to power data centers that provide 5G internet to rural areas? That’s revolutionary. And Scottsdale, Arizona-based TSO Greenhouses, and Overland Park, Kansas-based Kansas Freedom Farms are teaming up to make it happen.
Both companies are led by native Kansans who have a shared goal of increasing accessibility to fresh produce and high-speed internet across their home state. TSO Greenhouses Chief Technical Officer David Hinson, an electrical engineer, developed and patented solar panel technology that will be used in and instrumental to the project. Kansas Freedom Farms CEO Lenny Geist, who has a background in advertising, marketing, and public relations, is leading the project with his vision to build a network of greenhouses not just across Kansas but eventually in other states as well.
“I bring in the sales, marketing, awareness, educational, public, and community relations to build the brand,” and “David is on the technical and let’s call it the hardware side of getting the growing operation started,” Geist remarked in a phone interview with Consensus.
Construction is underway at an 11-acre, 60 solar-powered greenhouse site in rural Marquette, Kansas that will grow fruit and vegetables and stock power for a 5G data center. Geist said that he expects the prototype site to be operational by summer 2021. In a recent interview, Hinson told The Hutchinson News that the facility is “the first of its kind.”
Marquette is located in McPherson County–the same county that Geist says will serve as the location for a much larger, “50-acres under glass” headquarters facility planned for the future.
With the help of investors and tax credits, Geist and Hinson are aiming to launch 12 network hubs by 2030 like the McPherson headquarters. All sites will be capable of growing hydroponic produce and herbs to supply to the community. They also plan to grow fodder for local farmers as well as specialty crops.
The greenhouses will grow a vast selection of produce to sell to local retailers including basil, cucumbers, kale, spinach, strawberries, and several varieties of peppers, among others, according to Geist. Barley sprouts, wheatgrass, and sorghum will be grown for livestock and poultry as well as flowers and houseplants. Additionally, industrial hemp and cannabis, and other specialty crops could be grown for the medical and pharmaceutical industries.
“What we want to do is start in central Kansas and then add strategic locations across the state to form a network. From each additional location, of which there will be 12 across the state, there will be smaller spokes into other counties around them. You will have a statewide, locally produced fresh fruits and vegetables network that should be able to serve every citizen in the state of Kansas with same-day food that was grown within miles of where they live.”
The greenhouses will support an abundance of jobs. According to Geist, each acre under glass will create 10 direct full-time jobs and an estimated 10 indirect jobs.
“For every 50-acre campus, in total, we will create approximately 1,000 jobs for the area,” he said.
Not only will the vertical farming utilized by the greenhouses use just 5 to 10 percent of the water required for outdoor farming, but all of the locations will also capture rainwater and humidity to supplement its water resources. Through controlled environmental agriculture (CEA), the greenhouses will be able to grow year-round, even during bad weather conditions.
The other key component is the energy the greenhouses will store through solar technology – not just for their own operations – but for data centers, making high-speed internet accessible to people in rural areas. The Kansas Freedom Farms CEO broke down how Hinson’s patented solar panel technology (which will be used by all of the network’s greenhouses) functions.
“[The technology] takes your solar panel that can be custom cut to any size or shape, any length, and it faces the east, and as the sun comes up it tracks the sun – so it’s called a solar tracker,” Geist explained. “When the sun goes down in the west, and it’s not gathering energy from sunlight anymore, most solar trackers – if they are mobile or rotate – just rotate back to the east and wait for the sun to come up. What this one does is it continues to rotate and it flips inward. So now the light-absorbing elements are facing inside the glass greenhouses, so when you turn on your LED lights to grow any variety of plants you have in there, it’s going to absorb that LED light energy back into the solar panel. So now you’re effectively recycling your own solar energy, and it protects your structure – whether it’s your food production facility, your packing facility, or even your covered parking because the back of the solar panel is metal.”
Hinson’s patent allows a vertical farmer or greenhouse grower to use software to control and optimize sun and shade exposure simultaneously. This allows for different crops in different “zones” inside the structure to receive the ideal light and shade to maximize plant life and production. Photo: TSO Greenhouses, Caption from Lenny Geist
As The Hutchinson News noted, the panels essentially function like “Venetian blinds – continually adjusting the temperature and amount of sunlight by using a specifically-designed software program. These acrylic solar panels are approximately 14 by 4 ½ feet and 10 inches thick.”
Hinson told the publication that his “patent makes it so that the greenhouse structure qualifies as a solar support structure, so it gets the investment tax credit for solar.”
Around 40 percent of the energy collected from the solar panels will be used for vertical farming operations, with the additional energy used for data processing and 5G. The McPherson headquarters will feature up to three data centers and seven out of the 12 remaining hubs will feature a data center, making for 10 total, Geist noted. He added that excess power at sites without a center will be distributed to the local communities.
“What we want to do is install the 5G hardware at our hubs, get it into the 5G network, and then extend that to each ancillary or smaller vertical farm throughout the county and adjacent counties,” said Geist. This will make high-speed internet available to those who may not have had it previously, including farmers in rural areas who can use it to integrate precision agriculture into their operations.
Technicalities aside, at the heart of it all is Geist and Hinson’s hope to connect all of Kansas with nutritious food and fast internet.
“I want to see the people of Kansas have food that is healthy, clean, and tastes great, water, energy, data security, and communications that will also enhance and enrich their local education and their local communities and how they can help their neighbors,” Geist added.