Unique greenhouse kills two birds with one stone

Johan Van Zyl -- Thu, 05/19/2016 - 09:11

Unique greenhouse kills two birds with one stone

The Faculty of Engineering at the North-West University’s (NWU’s) Potchefstroom Campus has launched an initiative that will significantly improve the quality of life of many communities, specifically in rural areas.

By focusing on the application of technological engineering solutions, they are now taking traditional, small-scale vegetable farming to new heights.

Three food and energy plants in the form of greenhouse models where food production will take place inside and solar panels mounted on the roofs will generate energy, are currently being built on the Potchefstroom Campus.

According to Prof LJ Grobler, dean of the Faculty of Engineering, this concept enables them to get double use from the same available surface area. “We are doubling the value of the surface area as not only agricultural produce is grown there but the solar panels are simultaneously also generating energy.”

He says this modern greenhouse’s total yield per year is projected to be approximately 35% of the revenue of the food production and approximately 65% of the electricity being generated. The quantity of energy being generated is obviously much more than what the greenhouse itself will consume. This creates the opportunity to deliver and sell the remaining energy to the grid.

These three prototype greenhouses on the Potchefstroom Campus were funded to an amount of €1 million by a German company, Alensys Alternative Energy Systems, and the German government. The funding is being used for research, training, infrastructure, the entire running and the roll-out of the greenhouse project to other universities. The greenhouses are individually equipped with different technology so that a study can determine which of the three offers the most optimal performance for South African conditions.

“As soon as we have identified the success model, it will give companies the opportunity to become involved in the roll-out of these food and energy plants to rural communities as part of their corporate social responsibility. This offers sustainable production opportunities for these communities like never before. It can create as many as 65 employment opportunities per hectare, and offer an income opportunity that is a combination of food production and energy generation. As it is combined, the risk factors are reduced significantly,” says Grobler.

As soon as the food and energy plants on the Potchefstroom Campus are in production, they will be monitored on a daily basis so that the recipe for optimal production and yield can be identified. Winter and summer crops can be cultivated, and the possibility of growing cut flowers is not excluded. According to Grobler, this is also a pilot project for Germany to offer food, employment opportunities, energy and training to refugees currently entering Europe. “I see this as a multipurpose project to provide sustainable food, energy, employment opportunities and training to those who need it most.”

The food being produced on campus will be given to residents of the local Ikageng township in Potchefstroom on a weekly basis.
The North-West University’s food and energy project is the first of its kind in Africa and we are already talking to five other universities on the continent to roll out this initiative to them. The NWU then wants to be the heart of expertise with regard to research, training and support for these universities.

 

Prof LJ Grobler, dean of the Faculty of Engineering at one of the smaller greenhouses.

 

The bigger greenhouses are still under construction.