The Marijuana Venture Interview: Derek Smith

The executive director of the Resource Innovation Institute talks about how the industry can save energy and money through sharing data and best practices

While the product may be green, one of the oft-heard criticisms of the cannabis industry relates to its high energy usage and the strain this can it put on municipal power grids.

And because electricity is one of the most expensive resources in the country, an efficient grow facility can save not just energy, but money as well, leading to increased profits for cultivators of all sizes.

At the Resource Innovation Institute (RII) in Portland, Oregon, the mission is to “advance resource efficiency to cultivate a better cannabis future” by studying the data from farms of all types to better understand the energy impact of the industry, as well as help individual growers keep more hard-earned cash in their pockets.

“We work on establishing benchmarks on energy, water waste and carbon impacts of cultivating cannabis,” says executive director Derek Smith. “So essentially, we’re looking at what is the most efficient way to cultivate this plant however and wherever it’s grown.”

The researchers at the RII look at information about lighting types and HVAC systems, as well as production information, and then use that data to produce reports that help growers and inform regulators about how resources can best be used, as well as educating leaders outside the industry about the value of energy-reducing incentives.

“We’re making sure the industry is at the table when governments are beginning to take action and that those governments are fully informed so that they can make data-driven decisions on how to engage the industry on these issues,” Smith says.

Based on its research, the organization recently released a pair of best practices guides, available for download at its website, on both LED lighting and HVAC usage, which Smith calls “a major first for the industry.”

Marijuana Venture interviewed Smith about what the RII has found and how it is helping regulators prepare for the future of the cannabis industry.


Marijuana Venture: Let’s start with the basic question: How much energy is this industry using?


Derek Smith: It’s like taking the amount of lighting in a stadium and packing it into a Walgreen’s store.

But I would say that it’s probably less important to zero-in on a specific number and just to really understand that there’s a huge range of usage across all the types of cultivation, from indoor to greenhouse to warehouse.

What we see is that, generally, farms are increasingly installing more efficient technology, but what we’re hearing is that almost nobody knows how to optimize these growing environments. We’re just now doing that as a collective community. There’s this huge range of performance, and we need to dig in to understand why that is. We know technologies like LED lighting have the promise of reducing energy usage and improving profits, but we also know that what the cultivator does affects it — how they adjust the water and the nutrients and how they hang the lights and how they may dim the lights over the course of cultivation.

Basically, every facility is a snowflake; no two growing environments are the same.


MV: What are you finding about the use of power in indoor cultivation facilities? Are they drawing the huge amounts of energy that we hear about?


DS: Well, yes, in some cases they absolutely are. In some cases, we’re talking about energy use at the level of data centers, and it is generally driven by the choice in lighting. Also, how to optimize HVAC systems is kind of like a black hole. We don’t know how to optimize them. Those are the systems that are driving energy use.

There’s a technology component to this, but also a technique. We know, for example, that watering rates impact dehumidification loads, but what we don’t know is the exact relationship between those two things, and we won’t know that until we collect more data.


MV: What advice do you have for growers regarding resource management?


DS: On the HVAC side, it seems like very few cultivation operations are commissioning their building or even understanding what that is. Commissioning your building is getting an independent evaluation of the mechanical systems in your cultivation environment before you start operating to make sure that what the engineers and the architects and the manufacturers told you is going to happen is actually going to happen. In the rest of the commercial and industrial buildings world, commissioning is a relatively common thing, but we’re not doing it in this industry.

So cultivators are being told, “Yeah, everything is fine,” and the cultivators don’t really know why things are not performing efficiently. For example, systems may have been oversized because some calculations were wrong from the foreman who determined the size of the systems.

On the lighting side, there is an organization called the DesignLights Consortium that evaluates manufacturer claims on energy usage for commercial, industrial and residential lighting. This organization recently created horticultural lighting standards, so now lighting manufacturers can get verified as being on the DesignLights Consortium qualified product list, so that is a brand cultivators can look for when they go to make a lighting purchase. It applies to LED lighting, and growers should be looking for that seal of third-party verification. Unfortunately, there are some shady LED manufacturers out there.


MV: What regulatory policies have been the most effective toward energy conservation and what do you recommend to regulators moving forward?


DS: So, Massachusetts and Illinois have put essentially watts-per-square-foot limitations in place and we’ve also helped them understand that’s a way to evaluate lighting efficiency in a human-occupied environment.

What we’re helping governments understand is that plants use light differently than humans, so they need to use an entirely different measuring system, and that measuring system is what’s called photosynthetic photon efficacy, or PPE. It’s the measure of how efficiently a lighting fixture is using electricity to create the light the plants need and how efficiently it is delivering that light to the plant. That’s an example of the way the policy and regulatory environment needs to look at controlled environment agriculture, not just cannabis.

This applies to greenhouses as well, though in greenhouses you have some natural sunlight so you have the daily light integral (DLI), which is another key metric — how much light is the sun providing and how much light are the supplemental lighting systems adding to that? How efficiently is that taking place? That’s the way we need governments to be thinking about this.

We’re helping California right now as they write energy codes that will establish the minimum floor of performance that cultivation operations need to hit in that state. And California’s energy codes essentially create the blueprint for how energy codes are written all around the world so it’s really, really important. We’ve been working with the California Cannabis Industry Association and others to make sure the industry is connected to that code-writing process because we want to make sure the state of California is well-informed as it establishes energy codes that will have an impact on the industry globally.


MV: What recommendations do you make to the state then? What do you hope the regulators are hearing from stakeholders?


DS: As states write these requirements, utilities believe that they can’t provide incentives on efficient technologies unless those technologies can improve savings beyond that minimum standard that the state is setting. What we’re saying is the incentives on, for example LED lighting, are critical right now because it is not the normally used technology. People don’t know how to use it effectively so we cannot have governments just require certain performance and then pull an incentive. We need governments and utilities to provide incentives and we need education on best practices.

Our observation is the market needs trusted, objective information about how to do this most efficiently and we’ve essentially brought together all the experts to create that and we just need to get it pushed into the marketplace so we can help people be more profitable.


This interview has been edited for length and content.


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