The Need to Go Green

Columns - Guest Column

The industry is leaving its mark. Will it be the right one?

May 1, 2017

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With inconsistent public data, shifting regulations and fast-moving markets, it’s an understatement to say that it’s challenging to quantify the cannabis industry’s natural-resource impacts. A few serious attempts have been made to do so, alongside countless oversimplified hack jobs. However, we can say with confidence that cannabis production industry’s energy, water and carbon footprint weigh heavily when considering the market’s long-term viability.

Among a handful of other critical issues, resource efficiency will define the future of cannabis. This is true for at least three reasons:

1. Environmental impact: Cannabis is likely not the worst environmental actor among all industries, but it certainly is nowhere near the best. Despite the deep sustainability beliefs of many leading cultivators, the reality is, if current cannabis production trends (the mix of indoor, greenhouse and outdoor growing) continue, we could be among the industries most impacting climate change and exacerbating water shortages.

2. Producer competitiveness: Many producers will fail on the near-term horizon because of inefficient cultivation operations, leaving the industry with stranded assets and investors with squandered resources from a lack of due diligence. In contrast, the more producers are efficient, the more they’ll be able to out-compete and suppress the illicit market.

3. Industry reputation: Once documented—either legitimately via credible research or carelessly by a headline-grabbing publication—the degree of environmental impact bears the risk of impugning the industry’s increasingly positive reputation.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

With very little installed infrastructure, the cannabis industry has a unique opportunity to be bold in setting a level playing field for all producers to compete, while dramatically decreasing their environmental footprint.

The main challenge is that there are no widely accepted standards for technologies, facilities nor processes. And creating credible standards takes time. So we must create standards while we create a vision.

The Resource Innovation Institute (RII) is doing both.

Last month, we brought together our international Technical Advisory Committee, comprised of leading cultivators, manufacturers, design and construction professionals, utilities, university researchers, public agencies and NGOs. This diverse stakeholder body will guide the development of standards on energy and water use in the industry.

Our strong belief is that we should envision the industry as a showcase for carbon-free and water-wise production, then take strategic steps toward that destination—sharing information and pushing for supportive policy along the way.

After all, we believe that the cannabis industry, more than any other industry, has at its core a good environmental ethic and a tendency toward self-reliance. We can harness that. It’s up to us. No reason exists to wait for others to set the boundaries on our marketplace. That only invites additional regulation.

Four strategies can propel us toward becoming the most resource-efficient and resilient industry on the planet. As we support them, cannabis can become a beacon for how business should be done and will be strongly positioned for a marketplace increasingly constrained by natural resources.

1. Industry leaders should step forward and share best practices. How to most efficiently control moisture is not a trade secret, it is an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. We need to collectively grapple with these issues, research alternative approaches and norm our way toward resource-efficient best practices that can be spread industry-wide. Best practices set the stage for standards, and standards raise the bar. We should learn from the experience of other agricultural industries.

RII is creating peer-reviewed tools like its “Competitive Facility Checklist,” a guide to resource-efficient cultivation broken down by climate zone and production method. RII’s website ( features “Knowledge Hubs” on energy, water and facility issues. We’ve sponsored a Reddit-based Cultivation Facility Best Practices Forum. Above all, we are forming a network and a platform for the sharing of best practices on resource efficiency.

2. Efforts to gather and review data should be coordinated. Utilities, states, automation controls technologies and seed-to-sale software systems are potential checkpoints that should be explored for energy and water consumption data, ideally broken down by each production stage. These data sets are critically needed to establish standards that will help governments set good policy, manufacturers improve technology and utilities develop incentive programs that buy down the cost of efficient technologies. For accuracy and immediacy, aggregate data should be collectively compiled, standardized and studied.

As the central source for cannabis energy and water consumption data, RII is partnering with Oregon’s Cultivation Classic to evaluate energy consumption and assign a first-ever carbon “grade” to all strains entered in the competition. Likewise, it is aligning with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to collect and standardize producer data so we can better understand how and where energy is being used. RII also is collecting energy and water data directly from producer members who support its mission and want to know how their efficiency performance compares to industry benchmarks.

3. States should align licensing with climate and environmental goals. They should consider establishing incentives and requirements for low-carbon production. Oregon has taken an important first step in requesting energy and water forecasting and reporting. States should consider actions such as expediting licenses for those operators who are making investments in efficient techniques and technologies.

4. Local ordinances should align with state climate and environmental goals. Local jurisdictions play an enormous role in shaping the build-out of the industry. We are witnessing city and county officials restrict outdoor and greenhouse production due to (often misguided) concerns about odor and aesthetics, without regard to the impacts on the electricity grid, producer competitiveness, the region’s economy and especially the climate. Yet we’ve also seen Humboldt County promote rainwater harvesting, and Sonoma County drive demand for renewable energy.

We recommend that state agencies give guidance to local jurisdictions on how their decisions can affect larger, state-related objectives.

We invite you to join our efforts. As we push for a resource-efficient future for cannabis, we will yield an enhanced industry reputation and a more favorable regulatory environment, both of which will serve us well as we face the headwinds of uncertainty. Most importantly, we will set our own course for what success looks like.

Derek Smith is executive director of the Resource Innovation Institute, a non-profit whose mission is to promote and quantify energy and water conservation in the cannabis industry. He has been a leader in triple bottom line ventures in the public, private and nonprofit sectors for 15 years. Most recently, he founded and led Clean Energy Works, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization that facilitates residential energy efficiency upgrades throughout Oregon and Washington. He has directed energy programs for the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and also created an award-winning sustainability program for a national retailer.