MSU Researchers Go Abroad

March 14, 2008 - 08:22

Two Michigan State University researchers headed to the Netherlands on a journey to find solutions to curb the state’s rising energy costs. And the trip abroad opened their eyes to some innovative strategies.

Since 2004, energy costs have escalated by 30 to 50 percent, reducing the profitability of Michigan’s greenhouse industry by more than $20 million in 2005, according to a MSU press release. University researchers Stephen Harsh, professor of agricultural economics, and Erik Runkle, associate professor of horticulture, are leading a project to identify alternative energy sources and promising solutions for reducing energy costs and help the state’s multimillion-dollar floriculture industry “regain its competitive edge.”

Harsh and Runkle wanted to explore how greenhouse operators in other parts of the country were handling similar situations. The Netherlands was selected as a study ground because of its reputation as the top-ranking country in greenhouse crop production. The researchers surveyed how growers there responded to a government-imposed mandate to reduce climate-warming gases by 40 percent.

For Harsh, the most interesting method was “cogeneration,” a technique used to produce heat and carbon dioxide for the greenhouses while simultaneously generating electricity for the town.

“The trip to the Netherlands really opened our eyes to how many opportunities exist for generating alternative energy,” Harsh said.

Other alternative energy technologies used by the people of the Netherlands include solar and wind energy, biomass, alternative fuels and different types of glass or plastic.

Runkle is hoping to come up with methods to reduce greenhouse energy costs by developing a better understanding of how crops respond to temperature. Because the temperature in a greenhouse dictates how long it will take for a crop to reach maturity, plants grown in cooler temperatures take longer to develop and vice versa.

“We predict that growers might be able to save up to 10 to 20 percent on energy costs by managing greenhouse temperature,” Runkle said.

Runkle is developing a computer program in partnership with the USDA in Toledo, Ohio, that will generate mathematical models to forecast how well various crops can be expected to grow at specific temperatures.

Harsh and Runkle, who received funding for their research from Project GREEEN, plan to publish their findings and conduct grower meetings once their research is complete. To learn more about Michigan’s plant agriculture initiative at MSU, visit http://www.greeen.msu.edu/.

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