There have been many studies and investigations on how energy intensive cannabis grow facilities are.
“Cannabis is a very resource-intensive crop,” says Leora Radetsky, Senior Lighting Scientist with the DesignLights Consortium (DLC). “It not only takes a lot of light, but growers must also condition the grow and dehumidify, and that’s an additional energy burden. It’s a very large resource footprint.”
Being environmentally sustainable
The DLC is a non-profit organization whose mission is to achieve energy optimization by enabling controllability with a focus on quality, people and the environment.
“The DLC develops tools and resources that growers can use to make apples-to-apples comparisons for LED grow lights,” Leora says. “We develop stringent technical requirements and our horticultural lighting Qualified Product List (QPL) shows LED products that meet those requirements. The QPL gives growers objective data about high-quality, energy-efficient products.”
Leora Radetsky, Senior Lighting Scientist with DeisgnLight Consortium
Leora further explains that one of the main concerns for the DLC and its (electric utility) members is the energy usage of indoor cannabis cultivation in states where recreational cannabis is legal.
“There are many growers and facilities in such states,” she says. “The energy demand is a big concern. Being energy efficient is extremely beneficial not only for the environment, but for growers’ bottom line too. As flower prices go down because of the competition, growers have to find ways to reduce operational cost.”
Such energy-intensive states are those where the recreational cannabis industry is strongly present, including Oregon, California, Washington and Colorado.
“Light is a key part of the cannabis cultivation process,” Leora remarks. “For cannabis, light is essentially food. You cannot do without it and you have to have supplemental lighting to succeed.”
Many things to understand still
Cannabis cultivation is particularly energy intensive because there is still a lot to learn about this plant.
“Cannabis was being grown illicitly for many years and is a very secretive industry,” Leora said. “Although considerable experience and knowledge is necessary to be successful, the experience of some commercial growers is limited to small-scale illicit grows. Adding to this problem is a lack of publicly available, objective information on cannabis cultivation.”
But the lack of understanding is not only related to the cultivation itself.
“Genetics are not as stable in cannabis as in other crops,” Leora observes. “It is really hard to control your product and we don’t have adequate metrics to predict productivity or how one can manipulate the plant growth with light beyond photosynthesis. Thus, growers are forced to rely on trial and error and to listen to other growers’ experiences. This means that if growers want to change something in their operations, they’d better be ready for potential risks.”
The illicit status of the cannabis plant also prevents many universities from studying it further.
“Even today, since it is still federally illegal, state universities with large horticulture programs cannot research cannabis without risking loss of federal funding. There are university researchers studying hemp, because it is federally legal, but they are just starting out. We don’t have a lot of objective information yet,” Leora said.
That’s why the DLC regularly participates in conferences to further advance the body of knowledge about horticultural lighting and discuss changes in the industry.
“We had an electrical engineer from the California Energy Commission speak at one of our recent events on their proposed lighting regulations for grow facilities,” Leora said. “This new code will go into effect in 2023, but will affect only those growers that set up new operations or substantially change part of their operations after the regulation’s effective date.”
In order to help cannabis growers find lighting solutions that support both successful crops and environmental sustainability, the DLC has developed clearly defined technical requirements that horticultural lighting products must meet to be listed in its Horticultural Lighting QPL.
“The more growers know about their lights, the more helpful it is for their operation,” Leora said. “The QPL is growing, and we have a published timeline on our website indicating when we plan to add more product types to the list, so that manufacturers of those products can plan their QPL application submissions.”
As the cannabis industry becomes increasingly accepted in the US, and with a possible federal legalization in the pipeline, prices are likely to fall and resource efficiency will increase in importance.
“High tech, smart environments are going to be critical to making cannabis cultivation cost-effective,” Leora remarks. “There will be more LED fixtures in the future, and their price will drop, making this solution more prescriptive. It will be easier to get (electric utility) incentives, but I expect them to be smaller as LEDs become more the norm. As LED becomes the baseline technology, less efficient high-pressure sodium lighting will go away. But that will take a while.”