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Solar Off-Grid Greenhouse (Pittsburgh)

Credits: ©2016 Solaripedia / Robin Rogers

In the economically distressed Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh sits a new greenhouse that is mere feet from city utilities infrastructure, but there are no city utility connections in this building. Powered exclusively by energy from the sun through a pioneering direct current (DC) micro grid (as opposed to the standard AC or alternating current), the Homewood greenhouse requires no supplementary heat, energy, or water. Inside the greenhouse, Oasis Farms and Fishery is perfecting the state-of-the-art agricultural technology called aquaponics, where plants are combined with aquatic life to create a sustainable, diverse system of food growth and cultivation. It is a revolutionary urban farming initiative that provides a model for agricultural, economic, and sustainable development for even the most remote and under-privileged locations. Designed to increase food productivity and density, especially in urban areas, this experimental greenhouse not only grows food, but acts as a global model for developing nations.


Homewood Greenhouse Water System

Powered, exclusively by energy from the sun through a revolutionary DC micro grid, the Homewood solar-powered greenhouse in Pittsburgh requires no supplementary heat, energy, or water. Rainwater is collected from the roof to provide all necessary water. ©2016 EcoCraft Homes

The greenhouse includes:

• Aquaponics systems to grow plants and fish

• A STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education classroom under a solar canopy

• A rainwater collection and purification system, with both 1,200 and 500-gallon cisterns, that uses a series of ultraviolet light, filters, and pumps to make the water safe for the aquatic living environment

• Maintenance-free materials and design

• Zero operating cost

The Homewood neighborhood is considered to be a food desert, where access to affordable, nutritious food is scarce. There’s no community grocery store with fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of the kids in Homewood rely on free or reduced lunch in school. Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood is a sort of typical American inner city within “America’s Most Livable City.” Ninety-four percent of Homewood residents are black, the poverty rate there is greater than 27 percent, and almost one in four residents is a high school dropout. A drive through the area reveals shuttered stores and empty homes.

Built by innovative modular green home builder EcoCraft, the greenhouse offers a solution - designed specifically to address both local neighborhood food scarcity issues as well as global water, energy, and infrastructure challenges, this micro farm project successfully demonstrates radical self-reliance.

The greenhouse is part of a larger initiative to help create jobs and professional development opportunities for Homewood residents. The Oasis Project plans to launch a range of food-related social enterprises, including a community kitchen, a mobile food truck, and community food market, and culinary training, catering services, and food delivery services.

Direct Current

Three University of Pittsburgh professors helped design the project, cooperating under a joint grant: professor of business John Camillus, professor of industrial engineering Bopaya Bidanda, and professor of engineering Gregory Reed.

Because DC power is energy efficient, locally generated and renewable, it provides synergistic economic value-added and societal benefits. It also demonstrates that building social responsibility into companies’ business models can add economic value.

In the past, transforming an electrical load into high-voltage and transmitting the load over a long distance was not easy. New technology and improved power transistors have changed that to make DC power more accessible. Ultra-high voltage lines are now being used in the US, Canada, China and India.

The advantages of DC over alternating current (AC) transmissions are numerous:

  • DC is inherently compatible with solar power and other renewable sources that store energy in batteries. 
  • Local, distributed, power generation is more easily obtainable using DC. 
  • Homeowners with solar panels or a wind turbine would be able to plug right into a micro grid. 
  • DC motors are smaller and more efficient in appliances. 
  • All electronic devices run on DC power — cell phones, laptops, TVs, everything. 
  • Residential electricity is AC and must be converted using an adapter, with transmission losses of 10 to 15 percent. 
  • Electric vehicles are compatible with DC power, and car batteries can be charged in a fraction of the time via DC power. 
  • Lighting that employs electronic sources, such as LEDs, is also more efficient than AC lighting that includes fluorescent and incandescent. 

The Homewood greenhouse is just one of several DC power projects launched by the University of Pittsburgh professors as they research high-voltage DC transmission systems and low-voltage DC microgrids in a quest to make DC profitable and economically sustainable. Their plans include development of a Master’s-level certificate program at the University of Pittsburgh with a focus on DC technologies, micro-grids, and managerial and economic concepts, and a program to retrain existing electrical-industry workers and train new workers so they can obtain jobs in the DC energy field.

The professors hope to make Pittsburgh the center of D.C. power, in a region that has a powerful innovation ecosystem in electric power, as well as national research laboratories, universities, large companies, small- and medium-sized companies, government support, and tax and production incentives.

It is somewhat ironic that this innovative direct current (DC) system is located in Pittsburgh, home of inventor George Westinghouse whose alternating current (AC) system became the de facto electric standard in the US.

The greenhouse was built by EcoCraft - in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh, Oasis Farms, SolarCell LLC, Energy Independent Solutions, and Thoughtful Balance Architecture. Partners in the project include the Bible Center Church, Oasis Farm & Fishery, the University of Pittsburgh, the Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration and the Swanson School of Engineering.

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EcoCraft Homes (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA)


Homewood Greenhouse in Pittsburgh