What Steps Can Utilities Take to Encourage Efficiency?
The short answer: create energy efficiency programs for cannabis and provide design assistance for new facilities and retrofits.
Purchasing energy efficient equipment can be expensive and confusing to the everyday consumer. Utilities can provide incentives to bring down the upfront cost barrier to purchasing new, more efficient equipment and can often help with selecting the right pieces of equipment, leading to changes in purchasing behavior. However, cannabis facilities are a new type of customer utilities are not accustomed to serving. Cannabis cultivation centers use energy differently than traditional commercial or residential customers, so designing efficiency programs specific to the needs of the industry will be crucial to getting customers to participate.
Lighting, space conditioning, and dehumidification are huge consumers of energy in indoor cannabis cultivation. Cultivators have been hesitant to adopt new efficient technologies simply given their risk-averse nature and the amount of money at stake with each plant harvest. Early LED products, for example, did not deliver the plant yield that was promised by manufacturers, and cultivators quickly removed them from their facilities and became wary of efficient lighting equipment. Over the past several years, horticultural LEDs have advanced significantly and can now compete with their less-efficient predecessors in terms of crop productivity. Bridging the education gap between cultivators and lighting manufacturers will be critical to increase adoption of efficient lighting.
Retrofitting cultivation centers to become more efficient takes a systems-based approach and requires significant upfront capital and expertise. For example, switching to efficient lighting technologies is not just as simple as swapping out old bulbs for newer, more efficient ones. A shift to LEDs means cultivators must adjust the design of their facility including mounting distance to the plant canopy, number of fixtures needed, and amount of cooling and dehumidification required to maintain optimum growing conditions. All of this demonstrates the interconnectedness of the equipment in a cultivation center and the need for additional resources to help cultivators understand the systems they operate. Moreover, once plants are introduced to a facility, equipment retrofits are harder to achieve, so the best energy efficiency opportunities exist during the facility design phase when equipment is still being selected.
Utilities have provided design assistance programs to customers for years, for both new construction projects and retro-commissioning for existing buildings, but will need to become familiar with the unique needs of cannabis facilities before offering recommendations, as a change to one variable will impact the efficiency of the entire system.
The potential energy impact of legal cannabis cultivation is significant, but new states can minimize growing pains by learning from the successes and setbacks of early adopters.
As this industry continues to expand, sustainable policies need to be implemented, including requirements to meet with local utilities and submit energy data, to spur the development of new programs and resources. Utilities have the potential to play a significant role in shaping the energy profile of this industry but will require a proactive approach to engage these customers before facilities are fully designed and equipment is purchased. Distribution system upgrades may be necessary if demand-side management opportunities are missed, which can be costly for both utilities and consumers.
Energy efficiency can greatly reduce the otherwise staggering amount of energy required in cannabis cultivation. However, in order to be successful, the energy efficiency community must develop the necessary expertise on the unique energy needs of the cannabis industry. Generating resources and programs to reduce energy at agricultural facilities is not a new concept, but a custom approach needs to be employed before earning the trust of the cannabis industry and truly impacting cultivation practices.