By Tony C. Dreibus
Cannabis cultivators are increasingly exploring sustainability and energy conservation as a way to cut costs and minimize their impact on the environment.
And they might be forced to take such steps in the future: Severe water and energy shortages in some areas of the country are leading to pushback from local officials, which could usher in new restrictions on marijuana cultivation operations and stifle the industry’s growth.
The worst drought in California history led Gov. Jerry Brown to call for cutting water use by 25% from 2013 levels, for example, while Nevada lawmakers have recently expressed concerns about the large amount of energy used by cultivators in the state to run grow lights and cooling equipment around the clock.
To offset their carbon footprint, some cultivators are implementing methods to conserve water and energy. While that may increase up-front costs, the price of not employing conservation equipment and processes could cut into profits and give the industry a black eye, experts said.
“Over the long term, the investment will pay for itself from lower operating costs and provide a return,” said Alex Cooley, the owner of Solstice, a Washington State grower. “We do believe positive public perception will only result in more consumer loyalty therefore more sales. Most importantly it is the right thing to do.”
While many cannabis farmers are seemingly more earth-conscious than some of their counterparts in mainstream agriculture, most agreed that the amount of electricity indoor growers use and the amount of water each plant consumes isn’t sustainable.
But it can be reduced by using technologies that until recently hadn’t been available, and by implementing some tried-and-true methods that have been used by growers for decades, cultivators told Marijuana Business Daily.
Casey O’Neill, the co-owner of craft-marijuana producer Happy Day Farms, is a prime example of the latter. The 29-year old, who grows vegetables and marijuana 150 miles north of San Francisco, said he irrigates his crops with rainwater collected in catchment ponds and tanks with a 2 million-gallon capacity. He uses very little lighting since his grow is mostly outdoors (some clones require indoor incubation).
“In terms of public perception of the industry, cannabis needs to be green,” O’Neill said. “We can make money and we can honor the environment.”
While it may be easy for small-scale operations to grow outdoors and use rainwater, many people question whether larger commercial operation that want to maintain strict control over their environment would be able to employ those practices to scale.
Greenhouse and Solar Tech
Minnesota Medical Solutions, one of only two licensed growers in the state, says it can be done, and it putting conservation methods into practice.
The company is harvesting its first-ever crop in a 15,000-square-foot greenhouse, which will soon double in size, said Kyle Kingsley, the chief executive officer of MinnMed.
The company is also in the process of building a scalable 3- to 7-acre greenhouse with 45,000 square feet of solar panels capable of kicking out 600,000 to 700,000 kilowatt hours of power, and catchment ponds that can hold up to a million gallons of rainwater.
The goal, Kingsley said, is to have no carbon footprint whatsoever.
“We want to have a closed-loop system where we’re not taking anything from the environment and we’re not putting anything back in,” he said.
Lighting and Cooling
Still, indoor grows are the norm today due to laws in some states that ban or curtail outdoor or greenhouse production.
Those who grow in warehouses are acutely aware of the amount of energy they use just by looking at their electric bill. To offset their energy costs, many indoor cultivators said they are making the investment into more efficient lighting and cooling equipment.
Cooley, the Washington State grower, said “green” cultivation facilities are less-expensive to run and that over time, producers will easily recoup the up-front costs they incur. Along with lower electric bills, some utility companies offer free one-on-one meetings to talk about how to be more efficient, and may offer discounts to cultivators who employ energy-saving measures.
Companies that provide lighting are also finding new tools to reduce energy costs.
Biological Innovation and Optimization Systems (BIOS) executives said they’ve developed LED bulbs that reduce energy and cooling consumption by half.
While LED lighting has been a pariah to cannabis growers in the past, new technology originally designed for use on long-term space missions can be applied to cannabis production, said Neil Yorio, the company’s vice president for lighting research. Yorio is a former NASA engineer whose mission was to reduce the weight and electrical consumption of lighting systems that would be used to grow food and improve environmental systems for long-term space missions.
The company’s LED technology allows producers to control the light spectrum – actually creating the type of light that’s optimal for growing cannabis – which in turn can increase yields, he said. Growers that normally would use a 1,000-watt high-pressure sodium bulb instead use a 660-watt LED bulb.
Along with energy savings, some new lighting technology also has a smaller heat signature, which in turn cuts the amount of heat being produced and therefore curbs water use and electricity to run cooling fans.
Sustainability to Fight Stigma
Being environmentally conscious and sustainable
likely will become the norm going forward .
In fact, companies that don’t take a sustainable approach not only taint the industry as a whole, but they’re also setting themselves up for an early demise, some industry players say.
“It’s absolutely fundamental cannabis is produced in an environmentally sustainable way,” Yorio said. “At some point it’ll become non-optional. As more states look at regulations, they could be looking at not allowing companies to develop irresponsible cultivation plans.”
Tony C. Dreibus can be reached at [email protected]