Insights on "Why We Need Cannabis Energy Efficiency Standards"

Written By: Jen Neville
November 7, 2017

Highlights from a recent webinar on "Why We Need Cannabis Energy Efficiency Standards" hosted by Cannabis Tech

Any of the information provided below are the personal opinions of the mentioned presenters. In summary the full transcript of this webinar covers questions about standards for growing cannabis more energy efficiently, hosted by Ellis Smith and cannabis energy efficiency expert John Morris.

John Morris, Founder and Board Secretary of the Resource Innovation Institute

Working with Growers
In order to get a in-depth understanding of energy use in the cannabis sector, we had to surround ourselves with growers. The RII was founded by folks that really have a deep energy background as well as folks from the board of directors at the USGBC. We have a strong energy context, but we needed to really develop strong relationships with growers to tell us what's really happening on the ground. So RII said about developing a board of directors that includes growers from Oregon, as well as from Colorado and Washington. And we also have a technical advisory committee that is international. We have folks from Israel, Holland, and Canada that have technical expertise on the energy side as well as understanding how energy and horticulture work. So I think that's really the foundation by which we're able to drive insight and develop a better understanding of what average might look like one day. But we're not there yet.

I would say that collecting data is the Holy Grail of the cannabis industry right now. And for us to be able to aggregate data across a variety of building types which include commercial warehouses, greenhouses, as well as properties that have mixed building types and outdoor grows, we don't really make any judgment on how a grower decides to grow whether it's outdoors, or indoors, or greenhouse.

Focusing on CO2 Reduction
Economizers that are required by code are designed for the human use, occupants of buildings, right? And so code requires that there's a certain amount of air changes per hour in a building because there's humans in it. But in fact, a lot of growers don't really want to see these air changes at all. They're trying to pump these rooms full of CO2 which the plants needs to grow. And I spent some time with my friends at Gro-Tech, Ian and Anya, and they say that they're working on this very diligently in the state of Oregon.

We know Washington got a variance for it, but this is an added cost on the grower to put these economizers into a building, that they're essentially going to lock as soon as the code official goes in and does an eye test to make sure they're there. But they'll never be used. 

Collecting Data for National Energy Efficiency

Resoure Innovative Institute's Cannabis PowerScore is a web-based tool that enables producers to compare their energy performance to like producers. We formally launched it down in San Francisco about three weeks ago. So we’ll try to really segregate it by type of production, by state and climate zone, by kWh, both BTU per gram, and kWh BTU per square foot. And really what it does is it represents primary energy-consuming activities in any given facility, and serves as a basis of developing what we want to have as an energy standard. And it’ll capture the aggregate data to inform stakeholders, help develop many baselines for utilities and public agencies.

Once this tool is mainstream into the cannabis industry, and the utilities see it as a great resource for them in their program design, we feel like we’re going to get a really interesting snapshot of energy use and consumption nationally. And it’ll allow us to really understand what the opportunities are for efficiencies.

Researching Sustainable Approaches for Cannabis

We joked around at RII. One of our founders, Elisabeth Wayland, is a former board member of the USGBC, and we joked around saying we wanted to create the LEED for weed certification standard. LEED has a comprehensive view on all elements of sustainability, and that's very valuable. For us, we really wanted to be extremely focused on energy first, and then water second. So we're taking a deep dive on two dimensions of a larger sustainability approach. We want to have this scenario where we developed a baseline, right? So we know what energy looks like on average for a greenhouse, what it looks like on average for a warehouse, what it looks like on average for outdoor grow. And once we know that, then we can say, "Okay. Here is the best practice for you to get to your gold, silver, platinum level of energy performance."

And we want to create a recognition model so that consumers can say, "Okay. The cannabis that I've purchased is X-level energy efficient. X-level water efficient." And we believe there's a market out there for that.

Solar in the Cannabis Industry

The Resource Innovation Institute is always looking for expertise to round out all of our different elements and areas of work that we're focused on. I'm trying to build up the solar element right now so that we have solar experts that can really help drive down the energy use even more. I'd reach out to your utility and say, "Hey, look. I'm building this facility. You guys help me figure out how I can make this more energy efficient." And that's the thing is the growers and utilities had a interesting if not odd relationship over the last 30 years. In some cases, if growers weren't outright stealing power, it was certainly, at best, a don't ask don't tell type of relationship. And so RII really wants to be that national platform and bring the utilities, and the growers, and the manufacturers together to really comprehensively address all of the opportunities for energy efficiency. Well, we can't do it in our silos, right? So utilities can't just sit around and talk about it in amongst themselves. And the growers can't talk about it in amongst themselves. We need to really think of each other as partners, and really see the utilities as a way to lower that operational cost. And also, I would say, even before you get to efficiency, call your utility before you've even bought the property.

More and more, I hear about stories where growers buy a piece of land, and they don't really do a full energy assessment of what capacity is out there. And unfortunately, the powers at a single-phase and three-phase is 30 poles down. So they have unforeseen, unbudgeted energy upgrade cost. And then, they have to get in the line for whatever any other projects the utility has in place.

So I would say, look at the utility as that immediate partner. Help them. Let them help you define and identify the best properties for where you can maximize the energy use. And then, talk about efficiency as well. But book ups are a big issue. And I've talked to some utilities, they're a year and a half out from getting anything new online. And so understanding that where you select your property is so, so important. And not just from a kind of a price per square foot of that land or that warehouse, but what the energy capacity is is critically important.

Ellis Smith, Chairman and Founder of the American Cannabis Company

Ellis was posed with the question: Are any of your clients expressing interest or curiosity in energy and environmental issues as they relate to their operations?

Ellis Smith: I've got two answers for that. One, yes. I've got a few customers and clients who– that's a personal core values of them. They live in homes that are already LEED certified and come to me asking, "How do we build a more efficiency into our grow facilities?" But, yes. I do get a few folks that do that. Not all of my clients, but call it 10 or 15 percent. Secondly, my answer to that question is because of my background working with the US Green Build Council, being exposed to that technology, I've done a lot of work with the HVAC companies, materials companies, and just overall understanding of looking at how do we build a smarter grow facility?

And so through my projects to date, I'm on my now version 4.0 on my multi-tier growing system. As I've looked at every aspect of making this lean processes and putting in the most efficient HVAC systems, that now I'm looking at materials for my walls and the building envelope, and once again, trying to push what we have traditionally been seeing in LEED buildings and applying it to cannabis. And 10, 15 years ago, you may have spent 25% more on the build-out to achieve and bringing in some of this technology, but it is now becoming more cost-effective. It is now becoming a reality to do this, and it may increase your overall build-out by maybe 7 to 10 percent.

And when you look at the savings over time and the impact in the production you can make, it starts to make sense from a fiduciary responsibility of owning a business. And so this is where we start to look at this mindset of a triple-bottom line.

And it's not just about making money. It's also about thinking about the environment, but also the people involved in it. And so this is what separates what I do from most of my competitors, is I'm trying to sell this concept of building more sustainable grows, and to really looking at how that impacts your bottom line and your cost of goods sold because it can make an impact and make you be more sustainable in an industry that's getting competitive. And so a few of my customers ask for that. I still try to push that on them and show them the ability to implement it and how it can impact their bottom line.

Ellis asked John, "It seems like growers buy-in is essential to expand adoption of cleaner energy technologies. How are stakeholders addressing grower outreach needs?"

John Morris: It really is important for the growers to see the value in the technology and to trust that whatever technology is being proposed for energy efficiency is not going to negatively impact yield, and not negatively impact product quality. So when we go out and talk to growers, we have to make sure that we're promoting a technology that makes their facility better and makes their product better. And so it has to be a proven technology. It has to be independently certified and tested. If I was a grower today and a manufacturer said, "Hey, I've got this thing. You should use it." I'd be like, "Well, I'd want to check-in with my colleagues and coworkers. Anybody else using it?" And so you have to have a robust network of growers to validate concepts, to validate technologies, to validate that what we think in the efficiency world works will work in the grow world. And right now, like I said earlier, those are very siloed worlds. And we need to come together to have comprehensive conversations. And when we put on our conferences at RII,

We're bringing in the regulators. We're bringing in legislators. We're bringing in technology companies, and growers, and contractors. The most important organization, I would say, is the contractors that need to get trained.

When I was doing ENERGY STAR homes, we weren't trying to sell consumers on the value of an ENERGY STAR home. We were selling builders and contractors the value of an ENERGY STAR certification label. The grower is not really akin to the contractor. The grower is like the homeowner. They understand the plant exceedingly well. They understand levels of detail of a plant that I will never know in my lifetime. But if they have a contractor that they trust that is going to build out a facility the right way and make them market-competitive because their prices are so low operationally, that's going to be the win. And so it's finding those contracting companies, those construction companies that know how to build buildings for plants, and understand the efficiency proposition is what's going to sell the grower.

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