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Sustainability & Quality Go Hand-In-Hand In The Cannabis Industry

By Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand
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I recently attended the CannaGrow Expo held in Denver, Colorado. It was a fantastic event, per usual, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of presentations by industry experts where the central themes were sustainability and environmental stewardship. I was particularly struck by Adam Maher’s presentation, where he discussed the merits of micro grid technologies and the ease in which they can be coupled with renewable energy modalities, such as solar. His sentiments really resonated with me, particularly with respect to the long-term implications of cannabis cultivation sweeping across North America.

Considering that cannabis represents the new frontier of modern medicine and its societal acceptance is rapidly spreading, there is a growing impetus for cannabis professionals to implement technologies that will enhance the sustainability of their operations. These pertain to, but are not limited to, power generation and lighting, both of which are integral components to any indoor cannabis cultivation facility. Not only can the utilization of energy efficient technologies (i.e., solar panels and LED lights) help our planet that is struggling mightily to neutralize the influences of anthropogenic climate change, but it can also add value to the bottom line. That’s right: environmental stewardship, product quality and financial success are not mutually exclusive in the cannabis industry. For example, the utilization of solar panels and/or a micro grid can have a relatively rapid payback (<6 years), while the hardware itself adds inherent value to any cannabis property/operation. This is particularly relevant in an emerging market where acquisitions are common and the management of asset value is a harbinger of success. Secondarily, the use of LED lighting technologies to produce ultra-premium cannabis is another piece of low-hanging fruit that can be picked to add value. For example, 1st and 2nd place in Arizona’s 2017 ERRL Cup were awarded to flower that was grown under LED lights designed by the Tall Trees LED Company, where the total cannabinoid levels exceeded 32% and a wide variety of terpenes were detected. These results, coupled with the fact that LED lights can provide full spectrum light that requires less energy and produces less heat than HPS lights, make the adoption of LED lights a simple choice for the environmentally conscious and financially savvy operator.

As we continue to move towards more states becoming cannabis powerhouses, and a potential federal rescheduling, the industry must continue pushing the operational equilibrium towards more resourceful technologies. Of course there is always going to be a perceived activation energy or threshold that must be transcended before the adoption of new technologies can be successfully accomplished with confidence. This is completely normal and is usually associated with the initial capital that is required to acquire such technologies, and/or fears that such an investment won’t bear fruit. However, there is currently enough data to indicate that technologies like solar panels and LED lights are a smart financial choice for any cultivation facility where there is sunlight and electrical outlets.

In summary, I would strongly encourage any operator to evaluate the sustainability and environmental stewardship of their business, especially if they anticipate spreading the holistic gospel of cannabis medicine for many years to come. You are already doing a tremendous service for those who depend on cannabis medicine and now is the time to continue your noble pursuit while taking care of Mother Earth and paying it forward to our subsequent generations.

Building or Converting to a Greenhouse? Four Considerations for Commercial Growers

By Taylor Engert
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Successful cannabis cultivation practices leverage commercial agricultural industry practices for the most efficient and cost-effective production of the crop. Since the 1990s, the cannabis industry has cultivated primarily in indoor warehouses and outdoor farms, however the industry is experiencing a significant shift toward greenhouses.

Shelly Peterson, vice president of light product solutions at urban-gro, joined a recent panel of industry experts including Shivawn Brady, chief executive officer and founder of Seva Crop Consulting, and Karl Keich, executive director at Canna Consulting Group, at the Marijuana Business Conference in Orlando, Florida, to discuss how to transition from an indoor or outdoor grow to a greenhouse facility.

What are the considerations when deciding between a warehouse and greenhouse? The panel shares four factors around the costs and operational challenges, and the benefits of a greenhouse.

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The panel at the Marijuana Business Conference.

Maximize Efficiency in Every Process

Why are cannabis cultivators looking toward greenhouses? Peterson says it is all about efficiency. “In a warehouse, electricity costs can run up to 50 percent of the total cost of goods sold, which is a tremendous amount that can be decreased by switching to a greenhouse,” says Peterson. “In a greenhouse, you can add supplemental lighting to augment what the plant is receiving from the sun.”

For cultivators, Peterson noted that it is critical to ensure growers have experienced vendors and advisors on the team to help maximize the efficiency of the greenhouse. “As the cost of this product comes down, the efficient growers will be the ones in it for the long haul,” added Peterson.

Construction vs. Operating Costs

A greenhouse facility that urban-gro helped bring to operation.
A greenhouse facility that urban-gro helped bring to operation.

The panel identified upfront cost as one of the biggest challenges faced when building out a greenhouse. “The cost of retrofitting a warehouse and building a greenhouse are similar, but where you will save is in the operational costs,” says Peterson. “Lighting can be up to one third of your total cost in indoor facilities, when you switch to a greenhouse that cost can be reduced by 50 to 70 percent.”

Brady acknowledged that some traditional greenhouses have challenges in controlling the environment, but automated greenhouses offer retractable roofs and siding. “If you have the resources to invest in your greenhouse system upfront, that is generally a better way to save money in the long run,” says Brady. “Managing pests in greenhouses can also become very challenging if you don’t have the proper climate regulations.”

Lighting for Your Greenhouse

One of the greatest benefits of growing in a greenhouse is the ability to source natural light. But what about the required light levels? Peterson pointed out that light levels change throughout the year and the plants have different light needs in different stage. Supplement with a lighting system that can read the natural light levels received over any given period of time and be adjusted accordingly. “Greenhouse facilities also need to be outfitted to meet the needs of the cannabis plant, which differ in some ways from other agricultural crops,” says Peterson.

Peterson explained that every light is designed with a different purpose in mind. “There are different lights for indoor warehouse facilities where the lighting system provides 100 percent of the available light for cannabis growth versus supplemental lighting for greenhouses,” Peterson adds. “The key is to measure how much light is actually delivered by the sun on a daily basis, which changes throughout the year; at urban-gro, we supplement the facility with light fixtures that will not create shadowing during hours of sunlight and adjust to reach the optimal collective light levels.”

With LED lighting a hot button topic, Peterson explained that the most important consideration for any light fixture, whether LED or HPS, is it’s efficiency capacity. “It all depends on the budget and payback period and a lot of numbers need to be crunched,” says Peterson. “Yield is directly correlated to light; planning properly, sealing your environment, making sure you have the right target DLI, and buying good light meters, are all key.”

Make a Positive Impact and Quality Product

Brady noted that industry leaders are conscious of positive impact towards human health and environmental stewardship when moving to a greenhouse. Cultivators may find the process challenging initially, however the facilities are quite easy to operate and manage, and allow stress-free cultivation of commercial-scale crops.

Keich added that the cannabis industry is becoming more like commercial agriculture. By utilizing the correct technologies and regulators, greenhouse cultivation makes the crop smell, taste and look that much better. “Let’s use natural sunlight to minimize costs and be environmentally friendly to produce a superior product,” says Keich.

Peterson wrapped up by stressing that cultivators should evaluate the greenhouse environment and lighting to improve their bottom line. “Look at the most efficient way to lower your cost of goods sold. Lighting is a very big component to that,” she continued. “Make sure you evaluate the efficiency of the fixture and ask the questions: Why are we targeting this light level? Is the color spectrum correct? Are you measuring in micromoles per watt? These are all different questions, however figure out how much light is coming out of the fixture and verify it for yourself, and you will be successful,” says Peterson.

The Great LED Debate

By Aaron G. Biros
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The preferred choice for indoor cannabis growing has long been high-pressure sodium (HPS) 1000-watt light bulbs during flowering. Light-emitting diodes (LED) are quickly changing the indoor farming landscape with innovative technologies and promising energy savings. Many think the technology still needs time to develop. There are certainly many pros and cons to switching an indoor cultivation facility from HPS to LED lighting systems.

Steve Kruss, president of Light-Waves Electronics, Inc., gave a comprehensive analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of various light sources at the CannaGrow Conference and Expo. “The first adopters [of LED light technology] more than two years ago did not get the results they wanted, so many growers gave them a bad rap very early on,” says Kruss. His discussion delved into the pros and cons of both LED and HPS lights in growing cannabis.

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Light-Waves Electronics Inc. LED fixtures being installed in a cultivation facility.

It is important to highlight the weaknesses in many common HPS systems and the possible solutions that LED technology could offer. According to Kruss, HPS lights do not match the light spectrum’s photosynthesis curve that plants need to absorb energy. HPS lights give off a tremendous amount of heat that requires more energy to cool a facility down with an HVAC system, increasing energy costs for growers. Since LED’s use 50% less wattage, they produce approximately 50% less heat, significantly reducing cooling costs. HPS light bulbs need to be replaced multiple times per year. Quality LED fixtures can last more than 50,000 hours, or roughly eleven years. “The reality is HPS is putting a lot of light out but that energy is wasted because so much of it is in a light spectrum that plants do not absorb,” says Kruss. Perhaps most important is the lack of ability to vary the light spectrum; any light that HPS bulbs produce that the plant does not absorb is essentially wasted energy.

LED light bulbs provide a solution to the wasted light in HPS by targeting the particular spectrum that plants need for photosynthesis. By targeting the photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), roughly 400-700nm, LEDs can effectively mimic the sun’s ability to produce the wavelength of light specifically needed in a certain stage of cultivation. The absorption spectra and action spectra are wavelengths of light preferable for harvest as well as plant growth and metabolism, respectively. LED manufacturers and growers commonly try to harness the Emerson Effect, which uses red (670nm) and far red (700nm) to increase the rate of photosynthesis.

A plant in flowering under a Light-Waves Electronics LED fixture
A plant in flowering under a Light-Waves Electronics LED fixture

The benefits of LED lights in growing cannabis are numerous. The primary benefit is that it provides light at the specific wavelengths chosen to match the specific needs of plants. When finely tuned, LEDs can influence the growth process by slowing down vegetative plant growth and inducing flowering when appropriate. LEDs are more energy efficient than their counterparts partially because they give off substantially less heat in the beam itself, reducing cooling costs. Some growers use LEDs together with HPS lights, some use LEDs with natural sunlight in a greenhouse setting and some use strictly LEDs for the entire growth cycle. Each cultivation operation has its own budgetary restraints and structural limitations, but energy efficiency is one area that all growers should look to improve. According to Adam Koh, chief cultivation officer of Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C), indoor growers can get away with T5 fluorescent lamps (which do not consume much energy) throughout the vegetative process.

For some, the debate is over and growers recognize the added benefits that LEDs bring to growing cannabis. According to Kruss, LED technology is almost there. “In terms of yields, LED lights are providing around 75% of the weight that HPS produces, but on the vegetative side, the growth is considerably faster which could make up for that weight loss with faster grow cycles and an extra harvest,” says Kruss.

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An LED cultivation operation set up by Tall Trees LED Company

Adam Jacques, award-winning grower and founder of Growers’ Guild Gardens, has used LEDs in tandem with sunlight. Him and his team have bred and grown cannabis in indoor, greenhouse and outdoor operations. “I love the huge steps that some LED manufacturers have made in the past year,” says Jacques. “When I utilize them within a greenhouse setting I really like the product it grows.” Jacques’ findings in the field echo Kruss’ statements that LED lights have made considerable progress very recently. “It does take a little dialing in due to the plants’ increased feeding regiment, but it is a small price to pay for all of the benefits we see,” adds Jacques. His success with the new technology is representative of a larger trend; more and more growers are beginning to implement LEDs in some form.

Some claim the yield is less from LED lights during flowering.
Some claim the yield is less from LED lights during flowering.

Maxx Wiley and Robert Manes, co-founders of Tall Trees LED Company based in Arizona, believe their technology is on par with the yields other growers are getting with different light sources. “We conducted heads-up tests with our 500-watt LEDs versus other 1000-watt HPS bulbs and have seen very impressive results,” says Wiley. “The plants under our lights were consistently getting more weight and more flowers; the flowers appeared smaller but were actually denser and heavier in reality.” Wiley’s company makes commercial LED luminaires that are IP 65 waterproof rated and he claims they never had any issues with failures. The technology uses no moving parts to cool the lights, just metal clad circuit boards, heat sinks and conductive thermal-bonding materials. “We have had customers run potency analyses and have found tremendous variation in plants grown with HPS,” says Wiley. “We see more compound production and more consistency crop-to-crop with our LED technology.” There are currently a handful of manufacturers bringing innovative designs to market.

A cultivation operation in Maine using GS Thermal Solution liquid-cooled LED fixtures
A cultivation operation in Maine using GS Thermal Solution liquid-cooled LED fixtures

GS Thermal Solutions, based in Connecticut, manufactures 1000-watt LED fixtures that are liquid-cooled. The company makes lights that are fully adjustable, so growers can dial in each spectrum of light intensity independently and tailor to specific strains as well as stages of growth. According to Rick Rhyins, vice president of sales at GS Thermal Solutions, the liquid cooling technology allows for a much longer lifetime of the LED and a much more efficient energy consumption. “Our technology addresses the shortcomings and previous problems with early generation LED models,” says Rhyins. Coupled with facility automation, GS Thermal Solutions uses a central control system to monitor cooling, light intensity and spectra, nutrient monitoring and feed control.

Yet some are still skeptical of the LED lighting in today’s market and feel the technology is not there yet. Nic Easley, chief executive officer of Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C), has brought over sixty cultivation operations to market and is hesitant to endorse the technology at this point. “I will never be an early adopter when it comes to new lighting technology and I feel we are at least a year out from seeing consistently efficient LED lighting,” says Easley. “There are still a lot of false claims out there and I want to wait until I see repeatable results on a small scale before I feel comfortable endorsing LED lights for cannabis cultivation.” While companies will continue to innovate lighting solutions for indoor cultivation, in many cases (but not all) it seems using the sun to grow cannabis would be more energy efficient.

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Legal Cannabis Industry’s Energy Bill Not So Alarming

By Aaron G. Biros
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New Frontier, a financial data analysis firm, recently released a report that caused a media frenzy over the cannabis industry’s alarmingly high energy bill. The Washington Post published an article with the headline “The Surprisingly Huge Energy Footprint of the Booming Marijuana Industry.” Denver news publication, Westword, posted an article with the headline “Legal Marijuana Used Over $6 Billion in Energy Last Year, Report Says.” There are dozens of articles published suggesting the legal cannabis industry’s energy consumption has a $6 billion price tag, which is misleading.

What’s the problem? The $6 billion figure that New Frontier cites comes from a 2012 research study that estimates the energy footprint for legal and illicit markets. That means the $6 billion estimate includes the legal cannabis industry and the black market’s energy footprint. To put it in perspective, the size of the entire legal cannabis industry in the United States was less than that in 2014 at $4.6 billion, according to the ArcView Group.

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The projected energy demand for growing in the Northwest through 2035, from the New Frontier report.

According to Giadha Aguirre DeCarcer, founder and chief executive officer of New Frontier, only including the legal market would significantly reduce the size of this estimate. “Dr. Mills’ study looked to assess the total energy use associated with marijuana in the US, not just that of the nascent legal marijuana industry; including this holistic view is an important growth determinant for the legal market as the U.S. transitions from a predominantly illicit production environment,” says Decarcer.

Dr. Evan Mills, energy analyst at the Department of Energy and member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, conducted the 2012 research study and is a senior advisor on the New Frontier report.

Brett Roper, founder and chief operating officer at Medicine Man Technologies, believes those numbers still need to be adjusted. “Dr. Mills’ study is based on pre-2011 data and sources that date back as far as 2003,” says Roper. “The study provides figures that are, quite frankly, outdated based upon changes in the industry related to cultivation and production efficiency.” The study focuses on cultivation increments of sixteen square feet consuming 13,000 KW per year that, according to Roper, is not reflective of current indoor cultivation technology and energy consumption metrics.

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A back-end view of Medicine Man Technologies’ indoor production facility

According to Roper, today’s efficiencies, scalable cultivation operations and new technology could explain the overestimate from five years ago. “We are a Tier III operator that produced approximately 5,100 (+/-) pounds of dried cured flower in 2015 and have a total power bill of approximately $420,000 for the year,” he says. Note that the company had roughly $18 million in revenue in 2015. “Using this metric we have a total energy billing of approximately $83 per pound grown.” According to Roper, they cultivate completely indoors with HPS lights that are not particularly energy-efficient, so this estimate is relatively conservative.

MedicineManTechGrow
Medicine Man Technologies’ approximately 40,000 sq. ft. cultivation facility.

Dr. Mills’ research cites much higher numbers for the cost of energy per pound of finished product than Roper’s findings. “From the perspective of a producer, the national-average annual energy costs are approximately $5500 per module or $2500 per kilogram [roughly 2.2 pounds] of finished product,” says Dr. Mills. That would suggest the average cost of energy for indoor growing to be above $1,000 per pound, roughly half the current average wholesale price. These numbers would mean that cannabis growers, on average, lose roughly 50% of their total revenue to their energy bill. Medicine Man Technologies’ energy usage is less than 3% of their total revenue.

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Xcel, a Colorado utility, showing the rise in electricity demand for cultivation.

The New Frontier report does provide caveats on the use of Dr. Mills’ research. “While this analysis was conducted before many of the recent advancements in cultivation technologies, it highlights the significant energy-related environmental impact of marijuana production, and makes the issue of energy efficiency not just one of competitive advantage but also one of environmental sustainability.”

New Frontier’s CEO, DeCarcer, stresses that their report is intended to serve as a starting point to a much broader exploration of energy use in cannabis. “We are already in the process of establishing a partnership through which New Frontier will ingest real time energy-use data from cultivators across different legal markets for analysis in our next report,” says DeCarcer. “Our goal is to build on the work done by Dr. Mills and others in order to ensure that we are providing the most accurate representation of where the industry currently is, and where it is headed.”

Regardless of the discrepancies, this kind of discourse is great for prompting innovation and getting people to think about the environment. It is very important to examine the energy footprint of cannabis cultivation as it raises questions regarding energy efficiency, which would help the industry’s long-term environmental sustainability.

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Biros' Blog

Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016, Part II

By Aaron G. Biros
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In the second part of this series, I speak with Alex Cooley, vice president of Solstice, to find out what particular solutions growers can use to increase efficiency. Last month, I introduced the challenge of growing cannabis more sustainably. To recap, I raised the issue of sustainability as an economic, social and environmental problem and referenced recent pesticide issues in Colorado and carbon footprint estimates of growing cannabis.

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The growers at Solstice put their plants under a trellis net to increase yield.

Alex Cooley is the vice president of Solstice, a cultivation and processing business based in Washington. Solstice is at the forefront of the industry for innovating in energy, water and raw materials efficiency. I sat down with Cooley to discuss exactly what you can do to grow cannabis sustainably.

“Switching to outdoors or greenhouse will always be more sustainable than indoor, but depending on the type of facility, energy efficiency and specifically lighting should be at top of mind,” says Cooley. “Just looking at your bottom line, it is cheaper to use energy efficient lighting sources such as plasma or LED lighting, which will reduce your need for air conditioning and your overall energy consumption.”

Looking into sustainable technologies is one of the quicker ways to improve your overall efficiency. “We are big believers in VRF [variable refrigerant flow] HVAC systems because it is one of the most energy efficient ways to cool a large space in the world,” adds Cooley. “Use a smart water filtration system that gets away from wasting water by catching condensate off AC and dehumidifiers, filtering and then reusing that water.”

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Indoor cultivator facilities use high powered lights that give off heat, requiring an efficient air cooling system like VRF HVAC.

Utilizing your waste streams is another relatively simple and cost effective practice to grow cannabis sustainably. “Our soil and biomass goes through a composting company, we recapture any of our waste fertilizer and runoff for reuse,” says Cooley. “We try to use post-consumer or fully recyclable packaging to reduce what would go into the waste streams.”

So some of the low hanging fruit to improve your bottom line and overall sustainability, according to Alex Cooley, include things like reusing materials, composting, increasing energy efficiency and saving water. These are some of the easily implementable standard operating procedures that directly address inefficiency in your operation.

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The tops of plants are beginning to flower in this Solstice indoor facility.

In the next part of this series, I will discuss Terra Tech’s approach to sustainable cultivation, which utilizes the “Dutch hydroponic greenhouse model” on a large scale growing produce such as thyme and basil, but are now taking their technologies and expertise to the cannabis industry. I will also discuss the benefits of using a third party certification, Clean Green Certified, to not only help grow cannabis more ecofriendly, but also market your final product as such. Stay tuned for more in Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016, Part III.

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Biros' Blog

Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016, Part I

By Aaron G. Biros
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A few weeks ago, it was that time of the year when people set new year’s resolutions hoping to accomplish a set of goals or somehow better themselves. More often than not, those expectations never get met and those resolutions remain unfulfilled, lofty ambitions.

The cultivation of cannabis is a production process that is notoriously inefficient and energy-intensive. Indoor growing requires a very large carbon footprint. In 2015, we saw the country’s cannabis market grow to roughly $2.7 billion. Looking forward to 2016, we can expect more growth with multiple states voting on recreational sales including California and Nevada, leading to more growers and a higher volume of cannabis production across the nation.

I am suggesting a resolution for cultivators to adopt: Grow your cannabis more sustainably. This might seem unattainable, but the key to a good resolution is a force of habit, setting small goals to improve your production process and make your operation more efficient, ultimately saving you money and reducing your carbon footprint. This series will delve into some of the tools cultivators can use to grow cannabis more sustainably.

Environmental, social and economic sustainability are the three pillars of sustainability to keep in mind. Many describe it in terms of people, planet and profit in reference to the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. Essentially, cultivators should adjust their standard operating procedures and business model to include their responsibility to be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.

The challenge of growing cannabis efficiently is understandably daunting. A research study published in the journal, Energy Policy, suggests, “One average kilogram of final product [dried flower marijuana] is associated with 4600 kg of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.” That translates to an enormous carbon footprint, the equivalent of roughly three million cars.

The use of pesticides is also a tangible social and environmental issue of sustainability because of the potentially harmful effects on the cultivation environment and the consumer. Just last week, Denver recalled almost 100,000 edibles due to concerns of dangerous pesticide residue. Growing pesticide-free marijuana is more sustainable across the board for obvious reasons; it is safe for the consumer, less harmful to the environment and more marketable as a clean and safe product.

There are a lot of tools in the cultivator’s arsenal they can use to work toward a more sustainable operation. Some of these include more energy efficient technology, like LED lighting and efficient HVAC systems. Some tools require more effort to implement like moving toward greenhouse growing, using post-consumer products, support fields, composting and others.

In this series, we will hear from growers offering advice on some of the steps you can take to grow your cannabis with sustainability at top of mind. Alex Cooley, vice president of Solstice, a cultivation and processing business in Washington, will share some insights on the sustainable technologies you can implement to improve efficiency in your grow operation. Stay tuned for Part II of Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016.