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February 27, 2020


Many greenhouses could become energy neutral by using see-through solar panels to harvest energy -- primarily from the wavelengths of light that plants don't use for photosynthesis.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

See-through solar.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

Many of today's agricultural practices put enormous stresses on the environment. (Sound effect: irrigation sprinkler) Unsustainable water usage, (Sound effect: logging sounds) deforestation, (Sound effect: stream) pesticide runoff. (Sound effect: drip!) One promising approach to reduce environmental impact is greenhouse agriculture. The big catch is greenhouses can require a ton of energy to maintain ideal growing temps.

According to a computer modeling study from North Carolina State University, there is a way to turn greenhouses in some areas 100 percent energy neutral: Semi-transparent organic solar cells. The model showed it's totally doable in sunshiny places like Arizona (Sound effect: rattlesnake) and could provide nearly half of the energy needed in a greenhouse in say, (Sound effect: teeth chatter) Wisconsin.

The model was based on growing tomatoes in three locations around the country, calculating the amount of energy a greenhouse would produce at each one when solar cells were placed on its roof.

Plants use only certain light wavelengths for photosynthesis. Organic solar cells can be set to use mostly wavelengths that plants don't need. One bonus, the cells used reflect infrared light, keeping the greenhouse cooler in summer and trapping warmth in winter.

Another answer to a growing question comes to light.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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