In early December, a special delivery arrived behind NIU’s Anderson Hall. The 40-foot-by-8-foot box may look like a standard shipping container, but inside, you’ll find a complete, self-contained hydroponic farming system.
Dubbed “the Hydropod,” this container garden was provided by ComEd and EPRI (the Electric Power Research Institute) as part of a collaboration to fight food insecurity. Data provided by NIU’s Hydropod and other container gardens across the country will help researchers learn to grow nutritious food year-round more efficiently. NIU is one of four organizations in Chicagoland currently participating in the project.
“We’re thrilled to be part of this collaboration between ComEd, EPRI, and local nonprofits,” says Bryan Flower, NIU assistant director of food systems innovation, who coordinates the Edible Campus program.
“This unit affords us boundless educational and research opportunities for NIU students and faculty, as well as the area high schools we partner with. The Hydropod is the perfect complement to NIU’s traditional gardens and will advance the university’s focus on improving food systems and fighting food insecurity.”
According to NIU Vice President and Chief Engagement Officer Rena Cotsones, Ph.D., this project is part of a series of collaborations between NIU and ComEd. “ComEd has been a long-term partner in our efforts to build a pipeline of STEM talent in our region and bring high-quality science, technology, engineering, and math education to youth of all backgrounds. We’re pleased to collaborate now to address another pressing issue facing our region: the need for sustainable food systems to provide healthy food to all communities.”
“ComEd is proud to collaborate on this exciting project that will help sustainably increase access to healthy food in our communities and provide agricultural learning opportunities using this innovative farming method,” said Gil C. Quiniones, CEO of ComEd, in a December 2023 press release. “By helping the agriculture industry understand how lighting, water use, and other systems impact plant production, we can help expand food resource options for disadvantaged communities across the areas we serve.”
NIU and the other Chicagoland organizations will provide 16 months of data on growing conditions, energy use and produce yield that will help to inform future container gardening efforts. After that 16-month period, the Hydropod will remain at NIU. It will continue to provide food to the NIU dining halls and Huskie Food Pantry, as well as food- and nutrition-related research opportunities for faculty and students.
The Hydropod, which was built by the company Freight Farms, is equipped with LED lighting, a high-efficiency HVAC system, recirculating water pumps, a dehumidification system, and sensors. The pod’s embedded system allows farmers to remotely control the lighting, temperature, and watering conditions to create the ideal setting for produce to thrive.
The custom monitoring and verification system continuously gathers real-time data on growing conditions, allowing researchers to evaluate each farm’s operations. This project is part of a nationwide study organized by EPRI in partnership with more than a dozen utility companies. The data and resulting analysis will be made available to the public to inform and improve indoor food production in a variety of climates.
In January and February, the NIU Edible Campus team is scheduled to complete Hydropod training and begin planting. Since the Hydropod is capable of growing a thousand heads of lettuce in just five weeks, the Hydropod will be helping to feed the NIU community even before the snow has melted off the traditional garden beds near Anderson Hall and Founders Memorial Library.
Flower says the Hydropod is simple to use after a short training session.
“Inside the unit, there’s a small station where you propagate the seeds, which usually come in little pods. You put your pods in grow trays, you water those, you have a small light bench and you begin growing the seedlings. Once they reach a certain stage, you transfer the seedlings to the wall racks. The plants are placed in foam that holds them in place. Water flows over the racks to provide hydration as well as a liquid nutrient solution.”
Flower notes that the biggest advantage of container gardening is the ability to grow to produce year-round, regardless of the weather. The unit works best for lettuces and other leafy greens, and it can also be used for tomatoes and other smaller plants.
However, one disadvantage of indoor gardens is the high amount of energy required.
“It’s more energy intensive than growing outdoors in soil because you’re using quite a bit of electricity to run the pumps, the heat, and the lighting systems,” Flower says.
“That’s one of the reasons this study is so important. ComEd and EPRI are gathering data to assess the impact of container gardening. They’re trying to ascertain, if a multitude of these units went out, what kind of an impact would it have on the grid? And what adjustments can help to lower the energy requirements while still producing nutritious food?”
“We’re excited to be in conversations with the other Chicago area organizations that will be managing their own hydropod systems,” Flower adds. “Organizations such as Grow Greater Englewood, the Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative and the Young Men’s Educational Network of Lawndale are working to fight food deserts in their neighborhoods. We’re excited to continue growing our connections to nonprofits in the region who share our mission to make nutritious, sustainably grown food accessible to all residents.”