Green incentives for the green industry

Boulder County’s energy efficiency assessment lays out how cannabis cultivators can save money and energy

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Chart provided by ERS

Every morning as Boulder County wakes up, so do many of the county’s cannabis grows. Between the hours of 8 and 9 a.m., grow room lights snap to life, HVAC systems growl and stir as grow operators trickle in and start their morning walkthroughs.  

It’s a routine-enough procedure, but one that puts stress on Boulder County’s energy provider, driving higher emissions while at the same time costing Boulder County’s cannabis growers more than they need to pay. 

That’s just one of several big takeaways from a recent assessment of energy use at Boulder County’s cannabis cultivation facilities. 

The report, Cannabis Cultivator Energy Efficiency Assessments, was sponsored by Boulder County’s Energy Impact Offset Fund (EIOF), with data compiled and analyzed by Energy Resource Solutions Inc. (ERS), a Massachusetts-based engineering firm that works with utilities, municipalities and large companies to solve energy and resource problems. The report assesses electrical interval data from 14 different cultivation facilities throughout unincorporated Boulder County between July 2019 and February 2020.

Turns out, 66% of unincorporated Boulder County’s grow facilities operate their flower rooms all at once, every morning, according to the assessment. 

That slams power provider Xcel with heavy energy demands, making the regional electric grid far more carbon intensive (resulting in higher emissions) and increasing costs that are passed directly back onto cannabis cultivators. 

“The utility rate structures are really designed to encourage businesses to reduce their peak demand,” says Zac Swank, business sustainability coordinator with Partners for a Clean Environment (PACE). “75% of a monthly bill is determined by how much power [a grow] uses in any one- to 15-minute period.”

Staggering the operation of flower room lighting systems would produce energy cost savings of around 9% for growers, according to the ERS assessment. It’s a simple way for grows to reduce utility bills without reducing the amount of power a facility uses. 

Swank admits that adjustment would take some effort on the part of the cultivator to reschedule and reorganize their grow rhythm. But the rewards are increased energy efficiency, greater environmental sustainability and fiscal savings on an extended basis. 

“The devil’s in the details,” Swank says. “Certainly it doesn’t cost capital outlay to be able to make that change and benefit from using opposing flower schedules.”

The assessment is full of similar suggestions for both growers and the County to increase energy efficiency at grow facilities. The best way to achieve that, ERS reasons, is with financial incentives. 

That’s why the assessment urges Boulder County, Xcel, PACE and EIOF to offer even more robust energy offset credits than they already do for cultivators who are making efforts to ramp up energy efficiency. 

One such recommendation is for incentivizing growers who switch from UV lighting to LEDs.

“Retrofitting existing horticultural fixtures with high-performance LED fixtures represents the largest opportunity for energy and demand savings, representing approximately 70% of the identified cost-effective savings opportunities,” the assessment reads. 

Of course, replacing a grow’s lighting with brand new LEDs is an expensive upgrade; top-tier LED systems can cost up to four times as much as comparable conventional lighting systems, a fact ERS acknowledges in the assesssment by recommending that PACE and EIOF encourage this upgrade with “special” LED incentives to lower payback periods and drive early adoption of new technology.

“If PACE and EIOF were able to offer a bonus on LED incentives, targeting a three-year simple payback, Boulder County could be positioned for wide-scale adoption of LED technology,” the assessment states. 

Other upgrades and procedural modifications range from HVAC upgrades to better managing “photoperiods” (daylength), and even suggesting County-organized cultivator tours of different grows to facilitate cooperation. (The full report can be found on the County’s website.) 

The goal of all this, according to Dave Hatchimonji, energy efficiency program manager at Boulder County, is to give Boulder’s cannabis cultivators a leg up on the competition, while at the same time addressing Boulder County’s need to lower carbon emissions from this high-energy industry. 

“It’s really an advantageous environment for grows in Boulder County to make efficiency upgrades,” Swank says. “We’ve worked hard to provide that opportunity to our growers within the county.”