(This is the third installment in a series examining sustainability in cannabis cultivation. Read Part 2 here.)
Cannabis cultivators seeking to make their operations more sustainable should begin with their lighting systems.
“Lighting is the lowest-hanging fruit when it comes to making cultivation operations more sustainable,” said Andrew Mahon, owner and head of cultivation for Denver marijuana company Veritas Fine Cannabis.
One common theme among sustainability-minded growers: To improve sustainability via lighting, marijuana and hemp growers who cultivate in greenhouses should consider LED lights.
They use less energy and last longer than more common lights such as high-pressure sodium lighting.
“When you’re looking at the impact of lighting, it’s really the driving factor of indoor producers’ success and one of the highest cost centers in their cost of production,” said David Kessler, chief science officer of Billerica, Massachusetts-based Agrify Corp., which makes hardware and software for indoor cannabis cultivators.
“There is really no excuse moving forward for people to not use LEDs.”
There are also other low-tech options for greenhouse marijuana and hemp growers, such as quantum-dot film that is placed over the protective layer of a greenhouse and modifies the light spectrum.
The effect is said to enhance plant growth and yield.
LEDs on the rise
For many years, high-intensity discharge (HID) lights have dominated cannabis grow rooms.
They’re cheaper, for one. And, for a long time, growers felt as if LED technology hadn’t caught up in terms of its ability to produce larger yields.
But improvements to LEDs have led to growers reporting competitive results.
The one catch? They’re expensive – up to six times the cost of HID lights, according to some estimates.
The cost is worth it, said Graham Farrar, president and chief cannabis officer of Glass House Brands, based in Santa Barbara, California.
“LED lights are much more efficient in the conversion of energy to light,” he added.
Not only that, but LEDs emit less heat than HID lights, which means less energy to cool grow rooms.
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Farrar also points to LEDs’ longer life spans.
HID lights typically need to be replaced frequently and are manufactured with toxic metals such as mercury. LEDs can last for years depending on usage.
To Farrar, LED lights check all the boxes: They use less resources, they’re good for the environment and for business.
Veritas is currently experimenting with LEDs, although most of the company’s grow room still uses high-pressure sodium lights.
Mahon said the “cat’s out of the bag” about why the company should switch to LEDs. But before he spends thousands to make the switch, he wants to run tests to ensure the quality level is comparable.
The company just finished trimming its first harvest.
Once it’s cured, the crop will be sent to a lab to check for potency and terpene content and overall yield.
Mahon anticipates saving thousands on HVAC costs, for one.
The biggest hurdle to getting more buy-in on LEDs is cost.
Mahon estimates LEDs can cost from 20% to 150% more than HPS lights, depending on the company selling them.
That’s where cannabis companies should seek out rebates from local energy companies.
“Energy companies are on our side with this,” said Elizabeth Lee, occupational health, safety and environment manager at Veritas.
(See this guide about how to avoid common mistakes when seeking out LED rebates.)
Marijuana companies using LEDs can submit invoices to energy providers and receive rebates for the purchase price, according to Lee.
“As long as cannabis is grown indoors, I don’t see lights ever going away,” she said.
“In the future, we’re going to have to move to LEDs to grow in a more sustainable way.”
For companies that don’t want to spend the money on LEDs, Kessler suggests that both marijuana and hemp greenhouse growers could benefit from how quantum-dot technology works with natural light.
The best part of this technology is that it’s electricity-free.
Kessler admitted that it was still in the early stages – so the jury was out about its overall effectiveness – but, in theory, quantum-dot technology could be used with supplemental lighting to make natural lighting more efficient.
Quantum-dot film would be great for hemp since hemp is grown at a larger scale in larger greenhouses, he added.
In the end, Farrar in California says his goal is to run his business with the least impact to the environment as he can.
“The cannabis industry all starts with the plant, and our plant comes from our planet,” he added.
“So it’s important that we do this right. Sustainable for the environment and sustainable for the business can be the same thing.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at email@example.com.