Biros' Blog

Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016, Part I

By Aaron G. Biros

Indoor cannabis production is highly unsustainable, but using tools like efficient HVAC systems and LED lighting, cultivators can reduce their carbon footprint, increasing profit and environmental awareness.

A few weeks ago, it was that time of the year when people set new year’s resolutions hoping to accomplish a set of goals or somehow better themselves. More often than not, those expectations never get met and those resolutions remain unfulfilled, lofty ambitions.

The cultivation of cannabis is a production process that is notoriously inefficient and energy-intensive. Indoor growing requires a very large carbon footprint. In 2015, we saw the country’s cannabis market grow to roughly $2.7 billion. Looking forward to 2016, we can expect more growth with multiple states voting on recreational sales including California and Nevada, leading to more growers and a higher volume of cannabis production across the nation.

I am suggesting a resolution for cultivators to adopt: Grow your cannabis more sustainably. This might seem unattainable, but the key to a good resolution is a force of habit, setting small goals to improve your production process and make your operation more efficient, ultimately saving you money and reducing your carbon footprint. This series will delve into some of the tools cultivators can use to grow cannabis more sustainably.

Environmental, social and economic sustainability are the three pillars of sustainability to keep in mind. Many describe it in terms of people, planet and profit in reference to the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. Essentially, cultivators should adjust their standard operating procedures and business model to include their responsibility to be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.

The challenge of growing cannabis efficiently is understandably daunting. A research study published in the journal, Energy Policy, suggests, “One average kilogram of final product [dried flower marijuana] is associated with 4600 kg of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.” That translates to an enormous carbon footprint, the equivalent of roughly three million cars.

The use of pesticides is also a tangible social and environmental issue of sustainability because of the potentially harmful effects on the cultivation environment and the consumer. Just last week, Denver recalled almost 100,000 edibles due to concerns of dangerous pesticide residue. Growing pesticide-free marijuana is more sustainable across the board for obvious reasons; it is safe for the consumer, less harmful to the environment and more marketable as a clean and safe product.

There are a lot of tools in the cultivator’s arsenal they can use to work toward a more sustainable operation. Some of these include more energy efficient technology, like LED lighting and efficient HVAC systems. Some tools require more effort to implement like moving toward greenhouse growing, using post-consumer products, support fields, composting and others.

In this series, we will hear from growers offering advice on some of the steps you can take to grow your cannabis with sustainability at top of mind. Alex Cooley, vice president of Solstice, a cultivation and processing business in Washington, will share some insights on the sustainable technologies you can implement to improve efficiency in your grow operation. Stay tuned for Part II of Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016.

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  1. Brett Roper

    The highly unsustainable claim seems to be abit judgmental … for a person just out of college perhaps you should spend a little more time researching general industry practices as there is truly no wrong way to cultivate … just variations on a theme. I just read one white paper claims indoor cultivation power costs run $750 a pound and greenhouse costs $350 a pound … all the cultivators I know that run either of these cultivation practices (indoor or greenhouse) are likely shaking their heads in amazement to such claims … most controlled environment grows consume CO2 during the flowering stage so that seem abit green to me … most only employ fulltime employees and provide good benefits rather than relying on part timers and lowering their costs … most are very conscious of their environment and work to be good stewards of their community so accusing indoor facility cultivators of operating in an ‘unsustainable’ manner seems to need a little rethink. BTW … cost of power last year for a tier III operator here in Denver ran about $83 a pound, fully loaded using 1000W lamps for flower, high efficiency STULZ HVAC units etc., and producing (as well as selling) just over 5,000 pounds of dried cured flower material through two vertically integrated stores. In closing I like your new presence but suggest you perform a little more research (like hear the other side) before making claims like ‘highly unsustainable’ which to some might also imply unsafe or dangerous practices when indoor environments are some of the safest (and cleanest) in the country.

    1. Aaron Biros Post author

      Hi Brett!
      I sincerely thank you for your insights and comments. I really appreciate the dialogue! You are absolutely right in that it does sound judgmental because that is my intent. (Keep in mind this is a blog post, so it includes my opinion, not just the facts) You are right as well in that there is truly no wrong way to cultivate, just different variations.

      However I would like to respectfully disagree with a couple of your points. Your claim regarding grows consuming CO2 as ‘green’ is erroneous due to the large carbon footprint that goes into electricity- the amount of carbon that plants consume is minimal compared with the inputs required to keep that plant alive. I do understand that growers are conscious of their environment and try to be good stewards but that does not mean that what they are doing is good for the environment. Indoor grows require a tremendous amount of energy and the easiest way to not consume all that energy would be to utilize the sun’s power.

      In comparing cannabis to the food industry, it is incredibly rare to see any produce grown for consumption indoors. And it is such because of the high cost of inputs needed for energy and inputs. Utilizing the sun to grow crops is all around more sustainable any way you look at it.

      In my opinion, indoor cultivators are not doing all they can to grow sustainably because if they were, they would be utilizing an indoor/outdoor greenhouse model with blackout curtains or something similar.

      ‘Highly unsustainable’ by no means dangerous or unsafe- it just means that the environment (our planet) cannot sustain all that carbon released in our atmosphere if it were to continue for the foreseeable future. I do not doubt that indoor environments are safe and clean, just that they use a high volume of energy from the power grid that comes from power plants, burning CO2.

      Having said that, the second part of this series focuses on what solutions indoor growers can use to be more sustainable- and it is exactly what you mentioned- energy efficient lighting and HVAC systems, along with utilizing waste streams for compost, recycling and post-consumer materials.

      In closing, my research (look out for it in the next article) suggests that using efficient technologies and waste streams are baby steps that we can take with the goal in mind to ultimately be totally sustainable, with a carbon-neutral footprint.

  2. Brett Roper

    Thanks for your response … I sent you an energy synthesis that may help you to gain further insight into a high efficiency energy efficient indoor cultivation environment. BTW, we do consume a good bit of CO2 (at least our billings seem to say as much) and our latest cultivation technology provides a very energy conscious approach to even using switching (we were innovators of this back in 2010), motion activated lighting, STULZ HVAC (high efficiency clean room technology based having a much higher SEER rating that the usual commercial units), etc. Keep tossing rocks and stirring things up … helps keep us all honest and if we admit to it; we occasionally learn something too. “Experience is the toughest teacher as it generally gives the test long before the lessons”

  3. kevin

    Gentleman, for future build-outs look at a dehumidification equipment called MSP Technology it will save you over 50% on the dehumidification part of your electric bill. I am seeing them being used more frequently with incredible results and great rebates from the utilities.

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