Energy Efficiency, SCEIP and Cannabis Cultivation

Unless you’re an energy efficiency wonk such as myself or a regular attendee at Sonoma Clean Power board meetings, you may not have heard of the CPUC. The California Public Utilities Commission is a government agency that regulates privately owned electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water, railroad, rail transit, and passenger transportation companies. Their mission is to serve the public interest by “protecting consumers and ensuring the provision of safe, reliable utility service and infrastructure at just and reasonable rates.” Wondering how this agency celebrated 420 this year? By releasing a report titled “Energy Impacts of Cannabis Cultivation.” (Note that this link will take you to the page that includes the recorded webcast and the slide show presentations as well as the written report.)

This report summarizes the content of a workshop that took place in late February. I’d like to believe that someone in the CPUC offices understood the irony of releasing the report on a date many of us now consider to be a counter-culture holiday. So can we find anything to celebrate from these workshop proceedings?

The part I found most inspiring is that the various industry and governmental experts participating in the workshop were willing to admit that they just do not know many of the practical details of what to suggest for energy efficiency in cannabis cultivation. As the cannabis industry slowly emerges from the shadows of prohibition, presumably we will gain access to increased research data. Obviously this is a stark contrast to our current situation, in which according to one workshop presenter, “The cannabis industry has not benefitted from publicly funded agricultural research on how to best optimize production across a variety of cultivation methods, unlike other valuable agricultural commodities in the state.”

Energy efficiency studies for lighting, which come from the existing commercial sector, for example, mostly consider how to illuminate a work area, whereas in cannabis cultivation, lighting is an integral part of the growing process. Consequently, easy answers for efficiency in the workplace, such as switching to LED lights, aren’t quite so easy for cannabis cultivators, as LED lights require a change in cultivation techniques.

What we do know about the efforts to promote sustainability in cannabis cultivation is that it echoes some of the same challenges and trade-offs found in other industries. For example, while “indoor cultivation is generally accepted as the most energy intensive cultivation method, it is also potentially the most water-efficient method” – so you are looking at a trade off in whether to use more energy or use more water. Grape and vegetable farmers hoping to go organic have faced similar challenges in terms of balancing resources and impacts: Organic applications often require multiple applications throughout the growing season, which means more use of tractor fuel, and more compacting of the soil.

As with so many other aspects of the emerging cannabis industry, regulatory decisions continue to be made even in the absence of existing facts and data.

The CPUC at this event pointed out that policies encouraging indoor growing may not be taking into account the energy consequences of those decisions, and the subsequent impact on our state level ability to meet previously determined climate goals for reduced energy use.

What we do know at our local level is that the County of Sonoma is trying to address this concern by requiring that all cannabis cultivation facilities utilize 100% renewable energy, either through the utility company, on-site production, or else by purchasing carbon offsets.

While some may argue that renewable energy requirements are overly stringent, here in Sonoma County we have two unique opportunities for meeting these goals: (1) our local electrical supplier, Sonoma Clean Power, actually offers an “Evergreen” option to connect you with electricity generated by renewable sources, and (2) our local county government includes an Energy and Sustainability Division, which is tasked with providing free services to support your energy planning projects, including both efficiency renovations and the installation of on-site renewable energy, such as solar photovoltaic systems.

Although solar installations are generally perceived to have significant upfront costs, the county offers property owners special financing opportunities through the Sonoma County Energy Independence Office (SCEIP), which utilizes an assessment on property taxes. This funding resource requires no money down and has an easy qualification process, and most projects attain positive cash flow in the first year after receiving federal income tax credits. Better yet, the county Division of Energy and Sustainability has signaled a strong willingness to work with our community, and many of us personally met with Program Manager Liz Yager when she joined us at the April SCGA Mixer.

For more information on the renewable energy requirements – and options for meeting these requirements ­– mark you calendar for June 21st: a workshop on energy use and sustainability issues is a recent addition to the “Dirt to Dispensary” workshop series that the Sonoma County Cannabis Program launched in May. This should be a great opportunity to learn more about energy efficiency and energy audits in regards to lighting as well as ventilation and dehumidification. Come prepared with your questions and a willingness to speak openly about energy efficiency challenges you’re already experiencing with your production process.

I am hopeful that the Sonoma County cannabis cultivation community can pursue some of the same sustainability and efficiency goals that have brought our region international recognition for leadership on climate mitigation strategies, carbon free water, sustainable wine growing, and energy efficient craft brewing.

Special thanks to Barbara Oldershaw, SCGA PR & Messaging Committee Volunteer for this article.


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