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Canadian cannabis is addicted to energy, but it doesn't have to be

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Peter Nolan-Smith Feb 11, 2019 4:09 pm

While recreational cannabis is being touted as a potentially multi-billion-dollar industry, its cost to the environment is proving to be anything but green. Canada’s licensed producers are constantly on the lookout for ways to save on production costs, and energy is one major obstacle they’re forced to contend with.

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However, with some of the country’s licensed producers building massive record-breaking cannabis production facilities across the country, the question becomes whether cannabis energy can be affordable and sustainable?

In the US, state-level cannabis producers have been dealing with the same energy problems as here in the north. According to a legal brief prepared by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the electricity consumption of growing operations is “staggering when compared to business and residential use. In 2015, the average electricity consumption of a 5,000-square-foot indoor facility in Boulder County [in Colorodo] was 41,808 kilowatt-hours per month, while an average household in the county used about 630 kilowatt-hours.”

The problem with this is that there is no agreed upon “best” way to cultivate cannabis. Traditional illegal grow operations rely on hiding themselves in basements or secluded houses where their presence can be hidden from neighbours, energy providers, and law enforcement.

The main reason you would grow cannabis indoors is because of stealth,” Dan Sutton, CEO of Tantalus Labs, told Grow. “Stealth is your number one priority if it would drive a crop that thrives in outdoor production environments into a basement or greenhouse.

Sutton is one of an emerging group of business leaders looking to incorporate cleaner technology into Canadian cannabis production as a means of reducing energy costs and applying modern farming techniques to the craft of growing cannabis. His BC-based company uses predominantly sunlight in greenhouses to cultivate their product.

It’s really been core to our whole philosophy, since its inception. Since we started conceptualizing cannabis in a greenhouse, it was really this intersection between creating a quality plant output, a quality environment for the plant to thrive, and a drastic reduction in energy usage,” Sutton said.

The technology needed to grow potent cannabis indoors is constantly evolving, but many companies still favour enclosed, artificial light-driven systems. The energy required by the lights is intense.

“Those lights take a lot of energy probably about as much energy per square foot as an operating theatre,” says Sutton. “You’ve got your humidification stuff energy, your heating and cooling which takes a lot of energy depending where you are, especially in Canada. All of this electricity, it’s not incremental in a linear way, you’re having to add way more electricity in the cooling, and way more electricity in the humidification stuff so its sort of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.”

The energy requirements are increasingly becoming an issue for regions where cannabis is sold recreationally. Denver, Colorado, a city that has committed to a large reduction in greenhouse gas production, is grappling with this exact problem. Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment released a guide of “Best Practices,” for cannabis environment management, much of it dedicated to energy management and systems.

The report notes that electricity use from cannabis cultivation and infused products manufacturing grew by 36% annually between 2012 and 2016. And while Denver doesn’t have specific legislation to deal with cannabis’ energy demands, Boulder Country “requires
commercial marijuana growers to either offset electricity use with renewable energy or pay a 2.16-cent charge per kWh.” Proceeds help fund initiatives to educate cannabis growers on offsetting their energy costs.

In Canada, producers like Sutton believe the most sustainable balance is in large industrial greenhouses.

“When I grow a kilo of cannabis in California it contributes to 46,000 kg of carbon emissions, so this isn’t just a bit energy, its one of the most energy-intensive productions industries on earth. 

“It competes with fucking mining, which is crazy.”

Greenhouse growing reduces energy demand when compared to exclusively indoor operations, but not just because of the lighting. The infrastructure required to deal with the intense heat generated by the bulbs is also an added expense.  

“You don’t need to cool in the same way, you can use natural airflow and fans to distribute air and even if you’re using supplemental lighting, which is totally necessary in this part of the world, 90 – 95% of the light that hits that cannabis plant is coming from the sun.

These plants go nuts in the sunlight. They grow more robustly, they’re less prone to disease, in their last days of flowering they create trichomes — this kind of sap that’s really laden with cannabinoids, and terpenes — which are the things that consumers of cannabis want to buy.”

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