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Resource Innovation Institute Empowers with Sustainable Cannabis Cultivation Strategies

Some people still defy global warming. I’ve heard people comment on how cold a recent winter was, as if that one data point swayed the entire conversation. The real picture includes thousands of data points collated together. Some blame the popularity of sport-utility vehicles, others industrial pollution. The sun is getting hotter. The moon is migrating away from Earth at four centimeters per year, which will cause changes in weather. (Those latter two are on an astronomical scale, of course.) Many people like to wax poetically regarding the hows and whys but the most important thing we can do is spring into action.

The topic of sustainability should be a part of every Earthling’s daily repertoire. Mantras like “reduce, reuse, recycle” aren’t tree-hugging nonsense. As our planet endures consistent population explosion (around 80 million people each year), a very real question regards how many resources are available and for how long?

The legal cannabis industry is relatively new to the globe and is rapidly expanding. Growth requires resources like fossil fuels and their downstream derivatives like plastics, and water. Scientists have warned about the dwindling supply of some resources for many years, and with a mushrooming industry looking to balance demands with supply, the need for sustainability is essential.

The non-profit organization Resource Innovation Institute (RII) was formed in 2016 by energy, sustainability, and cannabis industry leaders with expertise in transforming businesses toward energy consumption models that are less greenhouse gas intensive.

“We knew entities like the United States Department of Energy would not be engaged, so we set out to inform governments, utilities and industry leaders on the energy, water, and waste impacts, as well as productive policy and incentive responses to drive resource efficiency,” explained Derek Smith, Executive Director of RII.

Sustainable farming should be on the minds of any current or prospective cultivator, whether you’re growing cannabis or almonds or Vic Secret hops, etc. After all, if something as medicinally beneficent as cannabis further taxes our planet, it negates some of what we’ve been able to achieve. We’ve needed to mitigate resource consumption for decades already, and Earth hasn’t become any cleaner.

“There are amazing models of sustainable farming in cannabis,” Smith said, “and yet they are isolated, and their practices are not studied, quantified, or documented for others to learn. The challenges include a tremendous variability between grow environments, and limitations on the scientific study of cannabis, both of which lead to a general lack of commonly accepted best practices among cultivators.”

For these reasons, RII has published their “Best Practices Guides on Cultivating Cannabis with LED Lighting & HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning],” as well as workshops regarding efficient yields. These workshops connect cultivators with design and construction partners to exchange open dialogues on best practices.

“I believe our current state-by-state regulation is bloating the industry with inefficiencies and we will soon see non-competitive models go by the wayside in greater numbers and with increasing frequency, particularly as interstate commerce kicks in,” Smith explained.

RII estimates that the electricity impact of state-regulated cannabis markets alone equals the carbon emissions from a large coal-fired power plant, at a minimum. “The reality is we don’t actually know the full energy, carbon, and water impact of the industry because it’s not being studied like it should be,” Smith said.

“Governments, utilities, and foundations should fund research studies and standards development, just as they do with other resource-intensive industries,” Smith continued. “They have tremendous opportunities to set the framework for lower-carbon models of agriculture, from technical assistance on regenerative soil practices, to lighting research, to greenhouse strategies, to efficiency and renewable energy targets.” Low carbon agriculture just refers to techniques that generate lower amounts of greenhouse gas (aka “carbon”) emissions.

Meanwhile, Smith believes that cannabis industry leaders can conjoin to augment the image of the industry. “The beverage industry has a Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER),” he added. “We think it’s time cannabis does something similar and we’re floating some ideas.”

There’s a lot of cannabis cultivation that’s been moved indoors, and while indoor agriculture might provide shelter from people and the environment, growing inside isn’t without its own shortcomings.

“Put simply, there’s a lot more energy use and very little data on how to optimize efficiency,” Smith explained. “We all need more data, and particularly regional and climate zone-level data, to truly understand what drives optimal efficiency. The reality is that most sun-grown cannabis farms employ some form of indoor agriculture, so this research essentially benefits everyone.”

There are existing options that can make an immediate impact on sustainably cultivating cannabis, both indoors and outdoors. “We need to be looking at interactive effects like watering rates and their impacts on dehumidification loads,” Smith replied. “We need to be learning about successful practices with other crops that we can apply to cannabis. There is so much to learn and share with the market!”

 Given that most farms are going to need energy for something, understanding all available alternatives can provide integral data for making informed, long-term decisions. “Farms keep moms and clones under lights, veg under lights, dry and cure with dehumidification systems, and use generators that combust diesel and emit CO2 into the atmosphere,” Smith added. “Everyone can do better when it comes to improving their energy efficiency, which is generally a straight line to profitability as well as a lower carbon footprint.”

RII has observed that most cannabis cultivation operations could substantially improve energy practices by being more cognizant of, and ultimately choosing, efficient technologies and techniques, such as adopting light-emitting diode grow lights, even if they are a higher cost up front.

“A traditional HVAC and lighting system approach could make up 45% of operational costs,” Smith explained, “but a high-performance HVAC and lighting system could reduce operating costs to 30%.”

“Our view is that there’s a blend of technique and technology that is right for everyone, however and wherever they are growing,” he continued. “Capture as much natural light as you can, augment with efficient lighting, control environmental conditions smartly, and employ renewable energy where you can.”

To that end, Smith feels that the collective body of work from RII and others in the industry over the next five years needs to be focused on research, best practices, and standards such that the industry will be “set up for the shocks that will occur with certainty in our agricultural systems.” But what can you do, right now, without any further regulation?

To answer this question with data, RII created the Cannabis PowerScore, a free, confidential assessment of a cultivator’s electricity use while empowering them to also see how they compare to other farms. To date, it’s been used by 300+ farms. RII has also created a Technical Advisory Council to peer-review the results from the Cannabis PowerScore.

“It all starts with measuring your own performance,” Smith concluded. “Once you know how you rank, you can make changes and understand how to effectively improve over your baseline. By improving energy performance, you can improve your competitive position in the market.”

It is possible to make money while practicing sustainability. With millions of people having stepped through the doorway into the cannabis kingdom, the demands are obviously high. But, like most things in life, a balance is needed. Perhaps we can find motivation in the Iroquois Seventh Generation Principle of steering decisions such that those made today result in sustainability for seven generations to come.

About the author

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

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