The Future of Farming is Power Plant Greenhouses


Plants growing in the Power Plant Greenhouse prototype; image credit: Marjan van Aubel Studio


Editor’s Note: This is an investigative article from Agritecture’s Sustainability Analyst, Brakeley Bryant, on an innovative greenhouse design. The following information is derived from an interview between Agritecture and Marjan van Aubel, Founder & Curator at The Solar Biënnale, and Solar Designer at Marjan van Aubel Studio.

Often promoted as being environmentally “greener” than conventional agricultural methods, controlled environment agriculture (CEA), in truth, has important tradeoffs to consider especially regarding energy use. This may be why, according to the 2021 Global CEA Census, 70% of CEA operators believe that the industry is susceptible to excessive greenwashing.

Food Safety Magazine highlights how the industry’s “large energy requirements for light and environmental control may well offset any savings related to being more local.” Furthermore, according to the 2021 Global CEA Census, while 62% of farms indicated that they track energy consumption, only 28% provided this information in a credible format.

Access insights on sustainability metrics from the 2021 Global CEA Census, and use this brief CEA Sustainability Communications Guide to help you more effectively interpret and communicate about sustainability-related claims in the CEA industry.

Innovators worldwide are developing concepts to harness renewable energy that may hold the solutions to more sustainable pathways that meet CEA’s energy requirements. 

The Smart Floating Farms (SFF) concept by the Barcelona-based design practice Forward Thinking Architecture; image credit: Forward Thinking Architecture

Renewable energy innovations in the CEA space cover a wide range of technologies from wind and hydropower to the repurposing of waste heat from neighboring facilities. Yet, solar energy shows particular promise in the industry due to its increasing affordability, its need for minimal infrastructure, and the fact that crops depend on sunlight already to conduct photosynthesis. As such, recent innovative CEA concepts have begun to experiment with photovoltaic cells, or solar cells, to capitalize on this sunlight in order to offset the financial and environmental costs of their energy needs.

The Smart Floating Farms (SFF) concept is one such innovation. Designed as a “smart and fully automated system”, this concept combines solar energy, hydroponics, and aquaculture, all while floating. The ground level is dedicated to “aquaculture and desalination technologies, the first floor for hydroponic crop cultivation, and a rooftop level covered in solar panels, skylights, and rainwater collectors.” Each module is estimated to produce 8,152 tons of vegetables a year and 1,703 tons of fish a year.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge, too, have trialed matching the tint of semi-transparent photovoltaic cells with the optimal visible light for photosynthesis, low blue to far-red light. A trial with basil and spinach has displayed great economic promise for farmers growing in greenhouses. The concurrent production of crops and electricity on the same cropland is achieved by “deploying bifacial modules above crops to harvest biomass and electricity.”

While these concepts are in good company, it takes a unique perspective to envision a future where solar energy is seamlessly integrated into CEA systems, almost to the point of being invisible.

Meet Marjan Van Aubel, a Dutch Designer that sees opportunities to integrate solar cells everywhere she goes.

Current Window by the Marjan van Aubel Studio, image credit Wai Ming Ng

Van Aubel’s interest in solar cells blossomed during her Master’s at the Royal College of Art. She started ideating how the typical blue and black solar panels seen commonly on rooftops could be made more aesthetically pleasing and functional for everyday life.

Over the next few years, she asked herself: “why can’t every surface be a generator of energy?” 

This interest in light inspired Van Aubel to develop ‘Current Table,’ and winner of the WIRED Product Innovation Award 2016, ‘Current Window.’ These conventional tables and windows are built with Dye Sensitised Solar Cells to harness the power of the sun and power appliances. 

With a fascination for CEA’s efficiencies, in 2017, Van Aubel merged her solar design interests with crop production. 

She shares that solar and CEA have been connected since the dawn of mankind through photosynthesis. The paradox of the current food system pushed her to ask herself, “why are we bringing food from the other side of the world into a location where we could grow it ourselves with climate control?” 

In realizing the main challenge of climate-controlled systems requiring lots of energy, she brought forth a solution in collaboration with The New Institute, architect Emma Elston, researcher Yasmine Ostendorf, PHYSEE, and the University of Amsterdam. 

A combination of solar technology and high-tech farming: the Power Plant Greenhouse. 


The Power Plant Greenhouse prototype; image credit: Marjan van Aubel Studio

The Power Plant Greenhouse prototype; image credit: Marjan van Aubel Studio


The atypically shaped triangle greenhouse is at a precise slant of 37 degrees. Van Aubel highlights that this is the optimum angle to receive maximum insolation. 

The solar glass on the greenhouse’s exterior helps control the interior climate, pumps water and nutrients throughout the integrated hydroponic system, and powers the LED lights that ensure plant growth.

Beyond the solar fittings, the team has taken additional steps to ensure efficiencies. The plant rows are designed in downward slanting fittings to leverage the impact of gravity. Because of this slant, water only needs to be pumped back up in the circular hydroponic system. This reduces energy consumption and increases efficiency. 

Van Aubel notes that many trials were conducted to determine what plants would be suitable for a system like this. Given that the design is still in its early stages, some plants worked while others did not. The success here is that the concept itself sparks an idea for the future of farming. 

While the team has stopped experimentation with this design, Van Aubel has continued her exploration of integrating solar power with high-tech farming.

The Netherlands pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020; image credit: Buro Belén

Most recently, the Marjan van Aubel Studio put together the Netherlands pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020. This project allowed Van Aubel to experiment and visualize the relationship between solar panels and plants in real-time. 

With an interdisciplinary team, Van Aubel continued to construct with circular processes in mind. The materials used, for instance, were planned with disassembly and reuse in mind. This incorporated tactics such as avoiding the use of adhesives. 

Incorporating agriculture and solar energy into this setup without adhesives is beyond easy. While seemingly a minor detail, such considerations force designers and innovators to consider the entire lifecycle of materials in their works.

We, at Agritecture, are excited to see where innovations like these will take the CEA industry. Get started on designing your own innovative farm with Agritecture Designer!

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