Kristina Etter   |   October 27, 2020

Ahead of the Curve: A Case Study in Sustainability

Solar Therapeutics made efficiency a priority from the onset.
Kristina Etter spent 20 years in corporate IT with a niche in mobile technology and IoT in agriculture. Today, she combines her love of technology with a passion for cannabis as the Editorial Director for Cannabis Tech.

Commercial cannabis facilities are resource-heavy operations. Indoor cultivation requires intensely bright lights, which often require immense amounts of electricity and produce significant heat. To control the temperature in massive grow rooms, cultivators must install huge industrial HVAC systems, only adding to the electrical load. Factor in thousands of gallons of water used each day, with little question, the cannabis industry isn’t very eco-friendly.

Reports from 2018 showed that commercial cannabis operations consumed nearly 4% of the energy in Denver. Naturally, cannabis cultivation, indoors or out, is also a water-intensive process. With a significant portion of the country experiencing extreme drought, water conservation is becoming a bigger priority. Maybe most disturbingly, it is estimated that the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the cannabis industry is estimated to be equal to those of every car, home, and business in New Hampshire.

As climate change becomes harder to dispute, growers should anticipate new energy and water conservation regulations in the near future. One cannabis cultivation facility in Somerset, Massachusetts, is ahead of the curve. Cannabis Tech spoke with Edward Dow, CEO at Solar Therapeutics, about making sustainability a priority from day one.

Sustainable by Design

Energy efficiency was a part of Dow’s plan from the start despite all obstacles. Targeting an underutilized building with an existing solar array, he noted, “We then had to kind of ground and pound to change 11 bylaws and change the zoning from commercial to industrial.”

At that time, Massachusetts was just starting to implement new energy efficiency regulations that limit operations to 36 watts per square foot. “Now, you can design outside of those 36-watt parameters if you offset your build with solar,” he added. “We decided to design our facility as efficiently as possible with all the current technology available to us, starting with LED lighting.”

As Dow describes it, choosing LED lighting has a “trickle-down effect” on the entire facility. “With smaller heat loads, you can have smaller HVAC, and smaller, more efficient equipment in general,” he explained. Without the efficiency designed into the facility, Dow estimates they’d use around 7.5 megawatts of electricity, but at full-build out, they anticipate being under four megawatts.

Solar Fields and Microgrids

In addition to being a licensed cannabis cultivation facility, Solar Therapeutics is also a registered power plant in Massachusetts. Realizing that solar alone wouldn’t be enough energy to power the entire operation, Dow, an experienced engineer, decided to build a microgrid. Natural gas cogeneration units, or combined heat and power units, produce the majority of their power with ultra-efficient engines. Dow stated, “They produce in excess of three megawatts onsite, enough to power between 1500 and 3000 homes. That’s really the heart of our power.”

Dow estimates that localizing the microgrid onsite effectively doubles their efficiency. Any excess energy they produce is contributed back to the grid. Plus, utilizing the waste heat from the system, Dow explains, “We take all that waste heat and pump it right back to the facility, and that’s when you start seeing 75-85% plus efficiencies.”

With a 90% efficiency target, the operation currently offsets at least 60% of their carbon emissions. Additionally, to date, the company has received over a million dollars in energy-efficient rebates. “And we’re working on millions more at the moment,” Dow exclaimed.

Water Reclamation

Besides just being energy conscious, Solar Therapeutics is also water aware. Using a ballpark figure of 2,000 gallons of water per day, Dow explained that the plant basically uses water as a transportation mechanism for the nutrients they need, and much of the water is transpired through the leaves of the plant as a vapor. Using a water reclamation system, their facility recaptures over 95% of the plants' water.

Dow admits, “If you're just looking at it from a pure ROI standpoint, water is very cheap, and water reclamation systems require significant capital and ongoing maintenance.” However, he also believes as responsible corporate citizens, it’s the right thing to do. “We’re trying to produce sustainably, and we think that will resonate with the consumers,” he said.

Advice from the Pros

Asking Dow what advice he’d give to operators looking to be more efficient and sustainable, he responded, “The first thing I say to every operator is to look into LED lighting… the savings are tremendous from an energy standpoint, and you can downsize your HVAC equipment to save on both energy and capital expenditures.”

“Also look at water recapture. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a relatively low cost,” he concluded.

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As we continue to look at sustainability in cannabis cultivation, join Cannabis Tech for a live webcast with experts from Fluence for an informational broadcast about the many rebates and incentives for cultivators opting for more energy-efficient operations. We’ll have a panel discussion and live Q&A with Corinne Wilder, VP of Global Commercial Operations at FluenceDerek Smith, Executive Director of Resource Innovation Institute, and Ed Dow, CEO of Solar Therapeutics. 

Learn more about the webcast and sign up here. 

 

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