Adele Worsley   |   November 08, 2018

Cannabis Cultivation and Solar: Improving Energy Efficiency in the Industry

The cannabis industry’s ecological footprint is not as green as we think, but solar may help.
Adele Worsley is a freelance writer interested in the intersection between the medical marijuana industry, small businesses, and changing cultures. Having traveled and worked between Colombia, Spain, California, and London, she’s now happy…

An indoor-growing facility requires massive amounts of energy for lighting, heating, air-conditioning, and dehumidification systems. According to the 2016 Marijuana Business Factbook, the majority of commercial grows are completely indoor operations, accounting for 63% in total, while a further 20% are at least partially indoors. These facilities need to mimic natural light through using lights similar to those found in hospitals, use air-conditioning systems to keep things cool, as well as other energy-hungry requirements. These machines usually run continuously. It's not surprising, then, that the cannabis industry’s ecological footprint is not green. 

Even before the legalization wave swept across the States, legal indoor cannabis growing facilities accounted for 1% of national electricity use according to a 2012 study. It’s been estimated that a 5,000 square foot indoor-grow facility would use approximately 41,808 kilowatt-hours per month. An average household, on the other hand, utilizes approximately 630 kilowatt-hours per month.

With legalization comes greater energy demands.

When growers had to grow their crops guerrilla style, before legalization, farms would sometimes use solar panels to avoid building up suspiciously large utility bills. Two years after Colorado legalized recreational marijuana (in 2012), the city of Denver’s 362 marijuana grow facilities accounted for over 2% of the city’s electricity usage. (1)

Now that cannabis is legal in even more places, including recreationally in Canada as well as across 30 US States to varying degrees, increasing attention is being turned to the issue of power demand and supply by growers, policymakers, and tech companies seeking to rise to the challenge of providing enough clean energy for the burgeoning market.

What role can solar energy play?

CEO of Solar Integrated Roofing Corporation, Dave Massey, has described the growing cannabis industry’s electricity consumption an opportunity that is hard to overlook. Stating that the electrical cost to produce a kilogram of cannabis leaf as approximately $2,500, Massey seeks to respond to the changing legal status of recreational cannabis in California by exploring how their custom-designed solar roofing could play a part. If their interventions in the energy demands of California facilities proves successful, they’ll consider expanding into more states.

Well-designed solar roofing could also play a significant part in supplying clean energy to CBD extraction facilities. Extraction facilities also demand high energy usage. Heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and the CBD extraction equipment itself are estimated to require about 25,000 kilowatt-hours per month (and this is just for mid-range extraction equipment). Massey reports that solar roofing could step in here and lower production costs for this sector within the cannabis industry.

Aurora Cannabis, a medical cannabis producer and distributor based out of Canada but whose products are exported internationally, are taking advantage of opportunities to use solar energy to clean up and reduce the costs of their production processes. Earlier in 2018, they acquired 71 acres of land in Medicine Hat, Alberta (Canada). The new facility is called Aurora Sun in homage to Medicine Hat’s status as the sunniest city in Canada. A facility complex the size of over 21 football fields will be a high-tech hybrid greenhouse cannabis production facility. Specialty glass will be used to ensure optimal light penetration, reducing electrical consumption. (2)

Expect updates about best practice

The opportunity to transform the cannabis market towards a cleaner and more efficient use of resources has not gone unnoticed. In 2016 the Resource Innovation Institute was founded in Portland, Oregon, by a group of energy and resource conservation leaders.

By partnering with a wide variety of stakeholders involved at some point in the ‘seed to sale’ timeline, the Resource Innovation Institute seeks to exchange best practices and establish standards for advancing resource efficiency. Growers, governments, and utility bodies are just a few of the actors involved. The Resource Innovation Institute provides a number of services, and these differ for governments, utilities, or those involved with the manufacture of cannabis products. For this latter group, an example of the Institute’s work is in their current development of an indoor horticulture lighting efficacy standard.

Information about best practice is not only stemming from not-for-profit private organizations, as with the Institute. Local governments are also stepping up to the opportunity. Denver’s Department of Environmental Health released in late 2017 its first Cannabis Environmental Best Management Practices Guide. It provides advice to cannabis cultivators for reducing environmental impact, with energy use reduction being a key element addressed. (3)

The legalization of recreational cannabis in some US states and most recently in Canada may very well lead to innovation in the supply and demand for energy, particularly in relation to solar power. Both tech companies seeking to make a profit as well as governments will play a role in developing, advising on, and regulating increasingly efficient ways of attaining energy for growing facilities.

 

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