Ways for Cannabis Businesses to Become More Environmentally Sustainable

Ways for Cannabis Businesses to Become More Environmentally Sustainable

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© Stock Pot Images / Josh Chastek

Cannabis greenhouses and retail shops can often demand the use of 24-hour lighting, heating, ventilation systems, and air-conditioning, which often lead to expensive and environmentally irresponsible outputs.

As longtime participants and trailblazers for the cannabis industry, some Denver businesses, city advisors, and engineers came together to start a discussion about best practices to manage the use of energy, water, and waste.

The panel of cannabis and non-cannabis professionals included: Amy Andrle, an owner of L’Eagle cannabis farm and dispensary; Emily Backus, the Sustainability Advisor for the City of Denver; Doug Hargrave, of iconergy; and Ben Gelt, of the Organic Cannabis Association.

As one of the nation’s most energy intensive industries, it’s an issue that’s important to consider as the sector continues to grow.  

Also of note, in attendance was the US Green Building Council (USGBC). While the council does not take a position on the legalization of marijuana, it does “recognize that the cannabis industry is one of the nation’s most energy intensive industries and can often demand the use of 24-hour indoor lighting, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning at grow sites.”

Energy demands

The need for energy can place high demands on the power grid, causing peaks in usage – which can cost businesses a lot of money.

Currently, legalized indoor marijuana growing operations account for 1 percent of total electricity use in the U.S.,  which equates to a production of 15 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the panel.

The demand will only grow as the number of states that legalize recreational marijuana increases.

The panel agrees that without the use of efficient equipment, these facilities will be responsible for vastly increasing greenhouse gas emissions and an intensifying demand on the power grid.

Barriers for businesses

Backus, the Sustainability Advisor for the City of Denver, took a deep dive into the barriers for these businesses in adopting more sustainable practices:

  • The best practices are unknown, or in development
  • There’s a historic culture of secrecy in the cannabis space (now diminishing)
  • Federal funding barriers
  • Distrust of new equipment and technology, due to faulty products marketed in recent years
  • Rapid technology development in the space
  • Variation in growing techniques and different needs

The good news is that there’s new cannabis equipment, as well as other products, constantly coming out and improving the way the plant is grown. Backus is also seeing the positive effects of growth, and professionalization of the industry in general. That includes the dozens of conferences and learning opportunities for non-cannabis experts to share their best practices and lessons learned.

As a representative for the City of Denver, she also mentions that regulations related to energy use in the cannabis industry isn’t on the city’s radar.

Soaring above the rest in sustainability

There are no ‘best practices’ yet, but that hasn’t stopped business owners from trying to find them.

L’Eagle cannabis company owner Amy Andrle is the only cannabis retail store to have a certification from the City of Denver when it comes to sustainability.

The certification recognizes businesses that demonstrate exemplary environmental practices in 5 key areas:

  1. Energy efficiency
  2. Water conservation
  3. Resource management
  4. Alternative transportation
  5. Responsible business management

Obtained last September, L’Eagle’s retail store is the first – and only – marijuana retailer in Colorado to qualify.

“We are tired of being the black sheep industry,” says Andrle. That’s why she’s trying to adopt these best practices as quickly as possible.

Organic and pesticide-free, nothing treated in the flowering stage, she says. They sell their own product, and do their due diligence to be responsible, and implement eco-friendly business practices.

In her experience, she finds that the most common reason for waste is having to retrofit a space. Fixing up older spaces – rather than building it from scratch – can lead to less than optimal HVAC air flow, electrical systems, and lighting.

On the retail side, she says the key areas to focus on for sustainability are lighting, recycling, transport, and in-store water usage.

When it comes to sustainability in cultivation, she outlines three key avenues of focus, and how to mitigate waste within each area.

Energy

  • Lighting – LED/Fluorescent/HPS
  • HVAC – Odor control/pest prevention
  • Avoiding Peak Demand by staggered turn-on

Water

  • Hand watering
  • Accuracy and efficiency
  • Limited grey water productions (runoff)

Recycled Waste

  • Composting media by other places like The Source
  • Bokashi compost system
  • Recycled plant matter provided to local farms for individual purposes

How can non-cannabis companies help?

Iconenergy is in the business of helping big operations identify areas of potential sustainability and best operations.

Having worked for only non-cannabis industries thus far, the Director of Business Development, Carl Hurst, brings an interesting perspective to the panel. He adds that he’s seeing a need for better engineering as cannabis becomes one of the most energy intensive industries.

“As cannabis scales up, we are seeing a breakthrough where we can help,” says Hurst.

The same rules apply for the cannabis industry as any other in these respects, he explains, and the adoption of technology in the industry will lower the cost of the product as the industry normalizes.

On best lighting practices, he says that “the people who wait, they are just paying money to the energy company…Doing nothing doesn’t make sense.”

Hurst also recognizes the legal and financial hurdles specific to cannabis.

The federally illegal status of the plant prevents owners and operators from taking advantage of the same public and private grants that are allowing other industries to refit operations to meet optimal sustainability practices.

Top ten ways to become more sustainable

Andrle knows from experience that “it’s all about balance.”

For example, while the number of solar panels needed for cultivation isn’t really feasible for most, start with trying it out for the retail side. “It’s more realistic,” she says.

Another tip from L’Eagle is to use the eco-friendly LED lights for plants while in the vegetative state. It saves energy, and works well even if you’re opposed to using them for the rest of the plant’s growing cycles.

Overall, the panel mentioned these ten areas for sustainability:

  1. LED lighting
  2. Motor efficiency
  3. Variable frequency drives
  4. Use economizers in air handlers
  5. HVAC system retrofits
  6. Automate production equipment – implement precision scheduling
  7. Demand Response / Load shedding – minimize demand at utility peak times
  8. Retro-Commissioning of systems
  9. Solar Photovoltaics – rooftop and or ground mount systems
  10. Utilities – “all the above” approach to get best ROI

The panel also discussed what they foresee will be needed in the budding industry, like finding a licensed professional engineer (PE) that’s worked in a cannabis facility, and investing in new technology.

From the engineering perspective, the bottom line is that cannabis business owners need to know what they want to change in terms of increasing the sustainability of their operation.

Problem is, much more data is needed. Only with the data can best practices can evolve.

Besides data, the unresolved banking and taxing issues for cannabis businesses at the federal level are also holding back the industry. These businesses need access to capital, and the all-cash business makes it nearly impossible to make that ultimate decision to finance a non-guaranteed investment.

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