Cannabis production is a booming industry, and along with that growth comes a large ecological footprint. In addition to large usage of chemical fertilizers and impact on soil and erosion, other concerns include resource consumption, an increase in greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming, and wastewater impact. The importance of these environmental impacts warrant explicit attention and development of a new framework in cannabis production. This provides GroTec and and the state of Oregon an opportunity to help shape policy, and develop what will become industry standards and best practices. Together, we have an opportunity to not only impact the cannabis industry but to usher in the foundation of a more sustainable agriculture industry as a whole.
With a variety of climate controlled grow operations on the rise, cannabis production is expected to have a significant impact on overall energy demand in Oregon and all states who have legalized some form of cannabis production. Higher demand of resources can result in a decrease of resource availability and can have a significant impact on the environment through soil and water quality and grid strain, especially in rural areas unprepared for this type of use.
While we have many individual actors and a few organizations working towards best practices in production, the industry as a whole has yet to adopt specific standards and building and energy code. With agency resources in short supply, and the additional complication of state versus federal laws, we have to coordinate both private and public sectors to engage in the development of baselines that will have a significant impact on the stabilization of both the economic and environmental elements of the industry.
In 2011, researchers estimated that indoor grow operations used 1% of total electricity in the United States.* While aggregate data in this industry is hard to come by, we do know that this is just a portion of the ecological impact and it will vary based on how and where the cannabis is grown. “Whether it’s in a residential building for medical, whether it’s in a greenhouse, or whether it’s in a warehouse—those are very different types of operations, and have different energy impacts,” said John Morris, Co-founder of Resource Innovation Institute. “And the utilities have not taken the steps necessary, in my mind, to do their due diligence. To understand ‘What is average? What does average look like across these different building facilities?’” While some indoor facilities consume more energy than outdoor facilities, there are many more contributing factors to sustainability than energy consumption alone. Water quality is another important concern when it comes to agriculture. Considerations in agriculture that can negatively impact water quality include issues such as sediment from eroding croplands, pasture lands, and stream banks, erosion and runoff from farm roads, runoff of pesticides or nutrients from fertilizers, and runoff of nutrients and bacteria from animal manure. This cannabis and agricultural water quality handout covers The Oregon Department of Agriculture’s rules for water and growing cannabis, tips to help remove excess irrigation water, and other considerations, but this is only the beginning. As an industry, we still have work to do.
It’s not only humans who will feel the overall environmental impact, but wildlife and animals living nearby cannabis production facilities. There are many potential downsides to not getting ahead of these considerations and we will eventually have to absorb the burden. It remains to be seen whether that is through a carbon tax, increased utility charges aimed at this industry, push back from communities not wanting to take on the weight of these considerations, or all of the above. Oregonians in particular are not only consumers of the product but also fierce consumers of the outdoors and steadfast protectors of nature. Environmental regulations ultimately benefit both consumers and industry participants alike and the cannabis industry will be no different.
At GroTec, we strive to ensure and maintain the best ecological footprint. GroTec is working hard towards creating industry specific code and design guidelines that push for energy efficiency applicable to this new version of agriculture. We are doing this in a number of ways, ranging from the equipment that we choose to the types of systems we design. This is not a one size fits all process. As we learn more and technology improves, and we integrate in more detail with growers and processors, we get better at efficiency and are able to design the right system for the right crop and the right environment. Being energy efficient is not only best for the planet, but best for the success of the grow operation overall. “The energy component is 40% of operational costs for most growers,” said Morris. “The most efficient operators are going to be the last ones standing.”
Additionally, it is important to continue collecting data and tracking sustainability. It will be a critical step in creating a baseline where one does not yet exist. Morris reiterates this by discussing the importance of working with utilities to better understand this data tracking. “We are working to try to get as many of the utilities to see that by helping us collect data we’ll be able to tell a better story of the end user and help figure out the best types of energy efficient measures,” he said. “It will make our growers sustainable long term.” GroTec is working with other entities to create best practices, as well as working with experts to design and integrate with many of the available assets, such as microgrids, solar and other sustainable sources of energy.