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US (NY): Shipping container project to advance indoor farming

A pilot project was launched Monday in Buffalo to help New York state advance indoor farming and increase the year-round production of fresh fruits and vegetables in areas where they are not readily available. Through a research collaboration funded by the New York Power Authority’s environmental justice program and led by the national Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the project will study optimum growing in a shipping container farm environment and address environmental and energy impacts that could help reduce costs and expand crop production.

Copyright New York Power Authority 

The demonstration will provide produce for FeedMore WNY nutrition programs, help address climate change in communities that host NYPA facilities, and support New York’s clean energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals by using this low-energy indoor farming method.

“The New York Power Authority is pleased to be part of this national collaboration with the Electric Power Research Institute that will improve indoor farming methods while supporting our neighbors in need in Western New York,” NYPA Chairman John R. Koelmel said. “Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s continued climate leadership, we will find new and sustainable ways to grow affordable and fresh produce all year while prioritizing New York state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals.”

NYPA is collaborating with EPRI to demonstrate and monitor the indoor production facility at FeedMore WNY’s offices on James E. Casey Drive in Buffalo. For the first year, the specially outfitted 40-foot shipping container, branded “Rooting for Our Neighbors,” will be used to harvest kale that will be distributed to food pantries and soup kitchens that rely on FeedMore WNY for nutritious food and support. Fresh kale, and kale dishes, also will be delivered directly to hungry community members served through its mobile food pantry and Meals on Wheels programs.

A press release stated, “Using shipping containers makes it possible to increase the availability and affordability of fresh fruits and vegetables year-round in urban and rural areas where they are not readily available. By growing indoors in a controlled, pesticide-free, 'sunless' environment, indoor farming uses far less water and land than conventional farming. Farms can be built anywhere, reducing both costs and carbon emissions from transportation of produce to consumers, and increasing food security. New York state’s Climate Act requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 85% by 2050 from 1990 levels.

“Indoor agriculture is essential to future food production, and we need to understand its implications for the electric power industry,” said Gil C. Quiniones, NYPA’s president and CEO. “NYPA is eager to demonstrate a replicable, sustainable indoor farming solution that helps to address climate change in the communities that host our facilities. If utilities have solid knowledge about how lighting, water use and other systems impact plant production, we can be good partners in helping to provide food resources to disadvantaged communities in our respective regions through these innovative farming methods.”

State Agriculture Commissioner Richard A. Ball said, “This indoor farming project is a unique and creative way to support urban agriculture and to increase access to healthy food in our communities. Building on the work the state has been doing through initiatives like Nourish to deliver fresh foods to families in need, this pilot program will allow FeedMore WNY to provide local agricultural products year-round. I thank NYPA, EPRI and FeedMore WNY for their participation in this forward thinking project, and look forward to the first harvest.”

NYPA is one of eight utilities nationwide to participate in a two-year EPRI study designed to help utilities better understand and engage in commercial-scale indoor food production, which is reliant on efficient energy and water consumption. Other demonstration sites are in Delaware, Tennessee, Minnesota, South Dakota and Colorado. Through site/operator engagement and automated monitoring, researchers will evaluate how energy loads, water use, innovative technologies, rate design and sustainability considerations vary across different facilities and locations. Other trackable data will include water consumption and reuse and the impact of seasonal climate variance on production and operations.

EPRI President Arshad Mansoor said, “Against the backdrop of increasing weather events and a global pandemic, there’s been an increasing appetite for indoor food production. EPRI engineers and scientists have been at the nucleus of this development, advancing technology to run container farm demonstrations across the country. This is a worldwide movement toward sustainable communities. Indoor agriculture also is an important part of efficient electrification, which is critical to enabling decarbonization throughout the economy.”

Tara A. Ellis, president and CEO of FeedMore WNY, said, “FeedMore WNY is incredibly excited for this opportunity to work with New York Power Authority and the Electric Power Research Institute in order to grow nutritious produce for distribution to our hungry community members, NYPA and EPRI are the true definition of good neighbors and we are so fortunate to have their support as we work to make sure our neighbors in need have access to nutritious food, including fresh produce.”

FeedMore WNY, the largest hunger-relief organization in WNY serving Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara counties, is assisting thousands more community members than ever before, primarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As many as one in six individuals in FeedMore WNY’s service area may be at risk of hunger.

The press release explained, “Fresh fruits and vegetables are vitally important components of a healthy diet. However, for food insecure community members, fresh produce can be challenging to access due to financial constraints, lack of transportation and lack of nearby grocery stores, farmers markets or bodegas.

“Kale was chosen as the initial crop because of its high nutrient value and short harvest cycle. After the first year, FeedMore WNY will grow a variety of produce to benefit its food insecure community members.”

The initiative is part of NYPA’s environmental justice program, which offers educational programs about clean, renewable energy and sustainability, and provides resources to meet the needs of underrepresented communities located near NYPA’s power assets. NYPA’s largest hydroelectric power plant – the Niagara Power Project – is located in Lewiston.

“NYPA uses its expertise and resources to help benefit residents who live and work in areas near our facilities,” said Lisa Payne Wansley, NYPA vice president of environmental justice and sustainability. “This indoor food production initiative aligns with and supports NYPA’s sustainability plan goals to demonstrate sustainable solutions to addressing climate change in local communities where we operate.”

Through its corporate responsibility efforts, the environmental justice program provides science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, mentorship and energy-efficiency initiatives to empower neighbors to make life choices that will improve the quality of their lives. Every year, the environmental justice team participates in “Rock the Block,” a one-day, annual event aimed at improving curb appeal in the South End of Niagara Falls, led by the Levesque Institute. Workshops teaching residents how to weatherize their homes are also offered to various community groups in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

New York State Sen. Tim Kennedy said, "For years, FeedMore WNY has served as a critical resource for many, and that important role has only been magnified throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Through this partnership, WNY families will have increased access to fresh, locally grown food, which will in turn fuel healthier communities and provide nutritious support to those who need it most."

Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said, “This collaboration is a major step forward in bringing healthy food options, mainly fresh fruits and vegetables, to some of our city’s food deserts. We thank the NYPA and the state for dedicating its expertise and resources to EPRI and FeedMore WNY to help advance year-round indoor farming in areas that need it the most.”

Mayor Byron Brown said, “Low-income communities, and especially Black and brown communities, have historically faced difficulties with food security and access to fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables. The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened those challenges, either through a loss of income, decreased mobility or more limited access to supportive nutritional programs. Today's announcement of this new partnership is a bold step in helping to address these systemic problems. I am confident that this collaboration between Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, the New York Power Authority’s environmental justice program, the Electric Power Research Institute and FeedMore WNY will help advance indoor farming in our community and further strengthen Buffalo’s year-round production of fresh produce in the neighborhoods with residents who have had the most trouble accessing them.”

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