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Communities | Environment

A Plant, Fish And Energy Farm Under One Greenhouse Roof

PORTLAND — German physicist Franz Schreier worries about how the world will feed itself under the worst climate change scenarios and in the aftermath of peak oil.

He wants to take the oil out of the food production process, and he has an elaborate plan for how to do it.

Schreier is the CEO of a start-up company called ebf, energy biosphere food, and the developer of an elaborate three-in-one greenhouse that farms plants, fish and solar energy at the same time. All without arable land.

He calls it a “solar aquaponics greenhouse,” and he brought the idea to Portland this month to extol its virtues to a group of about 30 aquaponics fans gathered at the rainwater harvesting equipment company Portland Purple Water.

Hold up. Aquaponics? The first step to understanding Schreier’s system is a definition of aquaponics. It’s a largely self-contained system that raises fish while growing plants in water. You feed the fish, and their excrement becomes plant food. The plants clean the water for the fish, and the system produces both veggies and edible fish in a small space year-round without chemical inputs.

And with Schreier’s system you can also harvest solar energy while you’re at it.

“We have limited resources, and they’re limiting our food security,” Schreier said as he introduced his invention. “Our food system is depending dramatically on oil. Meanwhile, climate change will destroy growing space across the globe.”

Schreier has repurposed an old Chinese greenhouse design and added high-tech elements including solar panels to create an extremely efficient system that grows lots of plants quickly year-round while also raising edible fish and generating renewable energy. So far, the system only exists in his own backyard in Germany, and it costs about $200,000 to build. But in the end, he said pointing to a picture of his first tomato crop, “this might be the first tomato with a negative carbon footprint.”

Jason Garvey, owner of Portland Purple Water, is really excited about aquaponics. He thinks Portland’s devoted gardeners and rainwater harvesters will recognize its value – particularly after seeing how quickly it grows food crops. His first aquaponics system started sprouting six days after planting.

“Aquaponics isn’t everything,” he said. “It isn’t the same as growing in mother earth in the 1830s, but it’s probably much better than growing in mother earth in 2012.”

Garvey is getting ready to test out a scaled-down version of Schreier’s system that he’s calling the Oregon Greenhouse.

“The greatest environmental act you can make is to grow your own food,” he said. “The process of delivering food to you through our current system is so carbon intensive.”

Experienced backyard gardeners at Schreier’s talk said they were impressed and ready to try some experimenting of their own – though probably not the whole system.

“It’s relatively easy to grow food in your backyard two months out of the year,” said Portland resident Tim Pepper, who attended the talk and said he was considering a much more basic greenhouse for his own yard. “If you want to grow year-round, you have to get creative. I think that’s why people get into this stuff.”

Charles Brun drove to Portland from La Center, Wash., to hear Schreier speak. He is building his own aquaponics system with his wife, who is a fish biologist. Right now, they have a small experimental indoor setup that involves “growing basil on top of a fish tank,” he said. “You just feed the fish. That’s it.”

Paul Nagel, a student at Portland State University’s Leadership for Sustainability program, said he sees a lot of promise in the ideas Schreier is putting into practice.

“This addresses a lot of the problems we’re facing in sustainability,” he said. “This is a way to grow food year-round on non-arable land where land can’t grow food anymore. The land itself can be rehabilitated while you’re growing food.”

(Read more from Cassandra Profita at her Ecotrope blog.)