The cannabis industry's thirst for energy has been well documented, with a majority of commercial cultivations burning electricity indoors because of local laws banning outdoor grows...and also because it's easier to control growing environments indoors. With over 591 active cultivation licenses operating out of 295 locations in Denver, the city is a fitting host for the hundred-plus cannabis growers, energy consultants and waste experts attending the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium, a two-day conference geared towards increasing efficiency and sustainability in commercial pot.
Put on by the Cannabis Certification Council and sponsored by Denver Relief Consulting and the Denver Department of Environmental Health, the symposium aims to address growing issues in an evolving industry as well as nip some problems in the bud. The CCC is a nonprofit organization that independently certifies cannabis products as organically grown and fairly produced; the DEH, one of the small number of government entities that enforce safe growing practices in Colorado, has been one of the most proactive agencies to work with cannabis growers, releasing the Cannabis Environmental Best Management Practices Guide in partnership with the CCC on October 16, the day before the symposium began.
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And best practices was definitely a focus during the symposium's first day. "The cannabis industry has an energy problem," Scale Microgrid Solutions founder Tim Hade told the audience on October 17. "But the problem is solvable." Hade's company provides energy solutions for agriculture in controlled environments; he was one of dozens of sustainability experts brought in to teach industry members about energy efficiency, waste management, water conservation, pest management and community engagement in licensed cannabis businesses. "What we know is that the cannabis industry is going to impact the CO2 output in the United States. What we don't know is if that impact will be positive or negative."
A February report from New Frontier suggested that cannabis accounts for one percent of the country's overall electrical output, which equals around $6 billion each year – roughly the same amount of power used by 1.7 million homes each year. According to Hade, a kilowatt of electricity in Colorado is "dirtier" than in other states with legalized cannabis, meaning Colorado's heavy reliance on coal and gas power makes it less efficient than Oregon, Washington and other legalized states.
Using solar and alternative energy, new battery-storage technology to avoid peak demand hours for electricity, or cogeneration to generate electricity and thermal energy together in an integrated system, cannabis cultivators can find new ways to both save money and be friendlier to the environment. "A 10,000-square-foot grow could easily spend $10,000 a month on electricity," said Mike Ashley, who founded a solar battery company for indoor growers. "We can all agree that the [power] grid is outdated. Achieving grid parity is the ultimate goal."
Energy conservancy isn't the only pressing topic at the symposium. The most prominent speaker on the first day wasn't even in the pot industry, but his company has a reputation as a socially and environmentally responsible natural-product brand; it's also one of the country's largest buyers of hemp oil. David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner's and grandson of the Dr. Bronner, helped the CCC get on its feet by providing initial funding. His love of cannabis and other psychedelics has inspired Bronner to engage in multiple advocacy efforts, including locking himself in a cage in front of the White House in 2012 with hemp plants and equipment, with the goal of making hemp oil to spread on a piece of bread.
Bronner sees opportunities for the cannabis industry to not only help people with medical and social benefits, but also to raise standards in worker treatment and environmental sustainability. "Every time we purchase and consume, that has a human labor and environmental factor to consider. How are the workers treated? How is the soil treated?" he asked the crowd. "We need to make sure everything involved is thriving."
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Bronner and other symposium pundits agreed that the cannabis industry should continue to look to other, similar industries for guidance, especially those in agriculture, such as the wine industry. Similar to the cannabis field, wineries and grape farms in California struggled to find a solidified entity to set universal standards for business practices before the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance gained steam.
"In California, there's a lot of bio-dynamic wineries that are both organic and self-sustaining," Bronner said. "It presents a high bar for cannabis to look at." Bio-dynamic operations use a cycle of natural and organic practices, such as bringing in cattle to eat crop residue and then using their manure to fertilize the soil.
"You guys are currently where the organic movement was thirty years ago," Bronner continued, adding that he hopes federal legalization will someday allow pot's inclusion in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic program. "It's definitely not a perfect program, but it's got massive amounts of consumer education."