A call for the rapid exchange of data and best practices on resource efficient production

By Derek Smith
Executive Director, Resource Innovation Institute

 

As we welcome the newly legalized states, we are prepared to be in awe of the pace of investment into production sites. The potential implications to the energy and water systems on which the industry will rely are massive. In California alone, tens of thousands of license applications for new, large grow operations are expected. 

How these production facilities are designed, constructed and maintained will impact not only natural resources but also the competitiveness of many firms and the overall public perception of the industry. 

Producer competitiveness at risk

Wholesale prices are dropping in several markets. Independent analysis of Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board data suggests that prices may fall up to 25% year over year. 

Operating costs must also drop, or those who led the way in recreational cultivation will be outcompeted. Technology has advanced. Innovation is on the horizon. The first facilities built to serve the recreational market are aging, and many need to be retrofit. 

Public perception on edge

While there have been a few alarming, and some misleading, stories about the natural resource impacts of cannabis cultivation, the industry is still in a relatively favorable, or at least neutral, position with the general public. But we all know that public attitudes can swing wildly and opinions can sometimes take hold with unstoppable force. With regulatory attention heightening on a range of issues, it is time for the industry to determine its course on resource efficiency. 

The path forward

At the Resource Innovation Institute, our objective is to transform today’s cannabis market toward carbon-free and water-wise production. We believe it is critically important for investors and producers to make informed decisions as the industry builds out its scaled-up infrastructure. What’s needed for this to happen? It starts with producer-supplier engagement, objective research, open sharing of best practices and, ultimately, widely vetted and adopted standards.

The absence of reliable baselines

There appear to be no broadly reliable baselines on average energy and water usage in cannabis production. Instead, there are ranges of estimates based on limited data gathering in a few regions, generally within certain types of production methods. We are therefore launching a research project in partnership with producer trade associations, state agencies, software firms and utilities to tie together data from multiple sources on the way to the creation of standards, with oversight from a Technical Advisory Committee made up of both industry and non-industry stakeholders.

The urgent need for best practices

Yet, given the pace of investment into production facilities, we can’t wait for research findings if we want to influence the construction of facilities that are being designed now. This early stage of the legal market is witness to rose-colored claims by LED lighting manufacturers, producer sticker shock at the upfront costs of HVAC systems, uncertainty about consumer acceptance of greenhouse-grown product, a worthy though unsubstantiated debate about the philosophy of sungrown versus indoor cultivation, and the list goes on and on. 

Market-based exchanging of best practices is a tried and true method for closing knowledge gaps in fast-growing industries. In times like these, it’s in everyone’s interest to raise the bar. Validation through shared experience is empowering.

A call for leaders to step forward

Unfortunately, based on conversations with producers at last month’s Cannabis Sustainability Forum in Denver, there seems to be some fear about exchanging experiences with efficient production techniques because it could reveal “trade secrets” that may make a firm more competitive. 

As a leading Oregon outdoor grower recently said, “I’m happy to share 90% of what I’ve learned about how to cut down on water usage without sacrificing quality, and I’ll keep 10% of my knowledge in reserve.”

This is the attitude that’s needed. We are calling on leaders with knowledge and experience to step forward and advance the industry, with reasonable precautions for individual firms. 

The Cultivation Facility Best Practices Forum

Our vision is that Washington, Colorado and Oregon, along with the long-running medical markets in many states, have an opportunity to lead by sharing their successes and failures. Our intent is to harvest the wisdom from the pioneers, and export it to the burgeoning recreational markets in California, Nevada, Massachusetts, Maine and beyond.

This is why we recently chose Seattle and Denver as the locations to launch our Cultivation Facility Best Practices Forum, the industry’s first open source venue for the exchange of best practices on energy- and water- efficient production. The Forum, located at Reddit.com/r/Resource Innovation, features topics ranging from lighting to dehumidification to renewable energy to rainwater harvesting. It enables participants to “upvote” (or give a digital thumbs up to) posts that are consistent with shared, positive experiences. Therefore, there is some internal curation. 

We at the Resource Innovation Institute are merely the hosts and moderators of the site; we invite the industry to “own” it. Ultimately, our Technical Advisory Committee will assemble a wiki featuring the most regarded content and make it available to help guide development in the new markets.

A collective vision and reputation for resource efficiency

With the oncoming rollout of legalization realities comes a unique opportunity for the industry to establish a vision and reputation for resource efficiency that is unmatched by any other sector of the economy. 

Let’s hope as the industry looks toward a groundbreaking 2017 that there is consideration for these issues as a near-term priority.