updated 8/21/2012 1:21:40 PM ET 2012-08-21T17:21:40

A California farmer is finding a unique way to capture emissions of carbon dioxide -- piping the climate-altering gas from a power plant into his massive greenhouse, spurring more plant growth and tastier tomatoes.

This carbon capture and tomato storage project is the first of its kind in the United States although similar ones exist in Europe.

The new $13 million combined heat and power co-generation plant opens Aug. 22 at Houweling's Tomatoes in Camarillo, Calif. The two GE-built engines will burn natural gas to keep the greenhouse warm, while generating some extra electricity that is sold back into the local grid. At the same time, the 8.8-megawatt plant feeds its waste carbon dioxide directly into Houweling's giant 150-acre greenhouse.

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"All the electricity (power) plants out there are putting CO2 into the atmosphere and heat which are two big consumptions," said owner Casey Houweling. "If we use our energy wiser we would have impacts from two sides, reducing cost and becoming more efficient."

Houweling says the co-generation plant is a big investment but he expects it will pay off in the long run.

"There will be a big benefit because we won't be exposed to energy prices because we are selling the electricity," Houweling said. "Long-term we believe this will stabilize our production costs."

The power industry has looked at many types of carbon storage projects over the years as a way to reducing atmospheric emissions of the heat-trapping gas. Some firms have tried injecting it underground to abandoned mines or salt deposits, others have tried bubbling CO2 through ponds of microscopic algae. But Houweling says that the extra CO2 is a perfect fit for his greenhouse. He already has to purchase the gas anyway from an industrial supplier to makes his plants grow.

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"In a greenhouse, if we don't add C02," Houweling said, "the plants will pull down the level so much they will stop growing."

Houweling says the addition of the co-generation plant makes his greenhouse facility almost 100 percent energy-efficient. He recycles 90 percent of his waste, captures rainwater for irrigation, and has deployed five acres of solar panels. The greenhouse-grown tomatoes also use less land than traditional row farming. That is a further energy savings, according to Scott Nolen, product line leader for General Electric.

"He can grow as much food on 150 acres as his neighbor in 5,500 acres," Nolen said.

Nolen said that until renewable sources of energy pick up the slack, there are still ways of making fossil fuel plants have less of an environmental impact.

"We'd all like to be in world where we don't burn hydrocarbons," Nolen said. "That's not possible yet but in the meantime, we want to make sure every molecule of hydrocarbon we burn for fuel is as efficient as possible."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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