Greening-up the cannabis industry: Solar is a turn-key solution to lower costs and emissions - by Scott Howe

July 07, 2017 - Green Buildings
Scott Howe, Solect Energy

As energy efficiency solutions are still being developed for the cannabis industry, solar is a turn-key solution to lower costs and emissions.

Most of us are aware that the cannabis industry is a rapidly growing part of the economy and, like any new industry; it faces a series of opportunities and challenges. One of its biggest challenges is energy consumption.

According to a report authored by Evan Mills, Ph.D. published in Energy Policy, the cannabis industry consumes 1% of the nation’s total energy and in California up to 3% of the state’s total electricity consumption. Lighting is one of the biggest energy challenges for growing facilities, requiring illumination levels that are the equivalent of hospital operating rooms. These facilities also require sophisticated and extremely energy-intensive HVAC systems. According to the report, indoor growing facilities require 30 hourly air exchanges, 6 times the rate of a high-tech laboratory. The HVAC system needs to carefully manage temperature, CO2 levels and humidity, all requiring extra energy to maintain the proper balances. Energy consumption can represent up to 50% of the wholesale costs of the final product. It is claimed that indoor cannabis cultivation is the most energy intensive agricultural business in the world.

In addition to costs, the energy intensive requirements of indoor growing facilities means that the end product has a significant carbon footprint. According to Mills, using typical production techniques, one Kilogram of product produces 4,600 kg of CO2, the equivalent of driving across country 11 times in a 44 MPG car. The high intensity energy usage also puts a strain on public utilities. For example, according to an article in The Guardian by Melanie Sevcenko, last summer Pacific Power in Portland OR, reported 7 outages from cannabis production and PGE had similar problems.

The power demands and emissions impact are beginning to draw the attention of regulators. For example Boulder County, CO requires growers to offset their energy usage with renewable energy or pay a 2 cents charge per kWh. Here in Massachusetts, legislators are currently working on amendments to the marijuana legalization law. Among the many changes proposed is a measure for mandating marijuana regulators to create energy and environmental standards for cannabis farms.

One of the reasons that growers struggle with high energy consumption is due to the longstanding prohibition of marijuana. Because it was an underground industry, specific energy efficiency solutions for growers were never developed. The good news is that as the industry has grown, so too have the solutions. Similar to other energy intensive industries such as data centers, new technologies, services and vendors are entering the marketplace and some utilities are offering specific incentives to help growers increase their energy efficiency. 

The bad news is that growers can be somewhat risk averse in trying new technologies as they do not want to jeopardize existing crops for technologies that have not been proven-out across the industry. For example LEDs offer the promise of dramatically lowering energy costs, but many growers still prefer less efficient sodium halide lights because they are more effective for the flowering stage of the plants. As lighting is a major component of the energy load for growers, new innovation companies are working on lamps that are both efficient and meet the technical requirements of growers, however, their adoption is not yet widespread.

As technology and policies continue to evolve, growers should look at distributed generation as the first solution (ironically many growers use diesel generators to offset their load requirements adding to cost and increasing emissions), and solar energy is a great option. Solar is a proven way to reduce both costs and emissions. It has the added benefit, unlike lighting and new HVAC approaches, in that it doesn’t need to be specifically developed or adjusted for the cannabis industry. It can even be paired with an energy storage system to better manage load requirements and ensure greater reliability. 

In the case of solar, growers have a proven solution that can help them lower costs and improve margins, lower their carbon footprints to help avoid regulatory surcharges and gain an advantage over their competition by producing a “green” product for their consumers. In sum, as energy efficiency options continue to be proven out for Cannabis growers, solar, or solar plus storage, are compelling choices that can meet their needs today. 

Scott Howe is a partner and senior vice president at Solect Energy in Hopkinton, Mass. 

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