Cannabis cultivators achieve sustainability goals with the support of local energy programs
One of the first things Rob King did when he began working for Sense in San Francisco was switch the cannabis cultivation company over to 100% renewable power. All it took was one phone call. No upfront cost. No additional equipment.
“What’s so cool about the program is that we don’t have to have the solar panels on site,” King says. “I like to think of it as the lowest-hanging fruit for the company to make a sustainability milestone.”
For an energy cost increase of 1 cent per kilowatt-hour, Sense joined CleanPowerSF’s SuperGreen service. CleanPowerSF is a community choice aggregation program that buys renewable power and puts it on a privately-owned grid. In Sense’s case, the grid is owned by PG&E and the power is sourced from numerous solar, turbine and hydro-electric sites. A collaboration, which was made possible through state legislation, between PG&E and The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission created the Community Choice Program for several Bay-area counties, where it can channel purchased power to local residents and companies. The city of San Francisco incorporated the program in May 2016, offering 100% renewable energy to residents and businesses.
“The city makes this easy for us,” King says. “Any business can do it. For us, I think we were the first in cannabis. I hope other growers that have a place in San Francisco do it, because it’s so easy.”
Programs like SuperGreen are not limited to San Francisco. In fact, every state in the U.S. has a clean energy program, but unfortunately the biggest advantage from such a program — a federal tax cut — isn’t a viable option for cannabis businesses.
But many programs do offer incentives for companies using energy-efficient lighting. However, federal funding also interferes with the availability of rebate programs, according to Rob Van Diest, president of Grow Rebates LLC and a specialist at tracking down rebates for cannabis cultivators.
Van Diest estimates that the majority of energy companies have rebates that would be applicable for cannabis businesses, but roughly half of them rely on money from federal grants.
“It all depends on which power company you get with,” Van Diest says, pointing to Washington-based Bonneville Power Administration as one of the biggest roadblocks. “They’re federally owned, so if the rebate is funded by Bonneville, then most of them will not offer rebates.”
Still, some utilities have worked out deals to reward cannabis companies for the installation of energy-efficient equipment — a major benefit both to the environment and to cultivators’ bottom lines.
Alex Cooley, the co-owner of Solstice Grown in Seattle, helped Seattle City Light establish a rebate program for cannabis operators. Solstice used the program to purchase almost 100 LED fixtures for its Seattle facility, which saved the company money on the upgrade and by reducing electricity costs.
Trail Blazin’ Productions in Bellingham, Washington received a check from Puget Sound Energy to the amount of $152,714 to help pay for replacement LEDs. Puget Sound Energy offers to cover 100% of the incremental costs for new growers and 70% of costs for growers looking to update their farms.
Van Diest helped Himalaya Farms in Pueblo, Colorado save $81,700 on its 200 LED lights through rebates from Black Hills Energy. He also worked with Sapphire Gardens in Sacramento, California for its $144,301 rebate on 418 lights through the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s rebate program.
The Energy Trust of Oregon offers businesses cash incentives and free technical support for installing LEDs, as well as lower premiums for buying renewable energy. For example, Eco Firma Farms in Canby received $99,800 in cash incentives from the state’s renewable energy program. Owner Jesse Peters says the farm runs on 100% turbine energy and uses all LED fixtures. The company saved roughly $63,000 on its annual energy bill and maintained a yield of 1.3 grams per watt. The Energy Trust of Oregon offers growers cash incentives of 25 cents per kilowatt-hour and $2 per therm.
King says LEDs are on the list of sustainability improvements he hopes to make at Sense, but as a smaller company, upgrading lights is akin to buying a 4K television — the technology is there, but the price drops every year.
Griffin and his partner Adam Hayes started Sense in 2012. The company’s products can be found on the top shelf of high-profile retailers such as Barbary Coast, The Apothecarium and SPARC.
“It’s nice to say that we’re San Francisco-based as it is an essential position within the state,” says Sense co-owner Steve Griffin. “Of course, we love that we’re 100% renewable energy. That’s a big thing for our industry since we use a lot of power.”
Prior to joining Sense, King worked as a facilities coordinator for Airbnb, where he helped the company partner with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to increase water and energy efficiency and helped create internal events around Earth Day, bike-to-work day and community clean-ups.
“I had a similar focus on sustainability while I was there, so I was able to bring those lessons with me over to this facility,” King says. “We grew from 200 people to 1,700 people while I was there (at Airbnb) for two-and-a-half years.”
Sense is a much smaller company, with only seven employees and roughly 2,000 square feet of flower in cultivation. It’s a small enough operation that titles such as “grower” can be misleading, as King also helps maintain the sustainability and compliance of the operation and if his phone happens to ring, then it’s on to public relations and sales.
King had been looking for a way to jump from the world of facility management into traditional agriculture, though he laughs and admits that growing cannabis indoors isn’t exactly traditional agriculture.
But growing cannabis wasn’t his plan. Initially, during his off hours at Airbnb, King was going through California’s Beginning Farmer Program, a state-run course to help farmers finance operations. When Griffin and Hayes called looking for help at their cannabis cultivation facility, King saw the timing as serendipitous and took a part-time position helping his friends’ operation.
“The next thing you know I was able to come on full time and now we’ve been going through city and state regulations,” King says. “It was a good opportunity for me to merge agriculture with the facilities and sustainability work I was doing.”
With just 2,000 square feet of cultivation space and zero automation, Sense already has a reasonably small energy footprint and King has the peace of mind to know that its 72 high-press sodium bulbs are being powered by clean energy.
“Our energy cost is more expensive, but 1 cent is not a lot,” King says.