4 Mistakes Growers Make When Building or Expanding a Grow Operation

Climate Resources Group’s Sam Milton outlines how cultivators can improve their operation’s sustainability during the design and planning phase.

In the rush to get cultivation facilities up and running, many growers and their investors make a few critical mistakes that can cost millions, and may even limit their longer-term viability. Some of the most fatal include:

1. Failure to Seek Utility Buy-In as Early as Possible 

As growers design and build their facility, they may not think of their local electric utility as an essential partner. After all, the argument may go, “Why bother talking to your utility if what you really want is to keep a low profile?” The fatal flaw in that logic, however, is there will be no guarantee the utility will have the capacity to deliver the power the facility needs, or whether the site can even accommodate the voltage and amperage necessary for a commercial-scale operation. 

Before growers sign a lease on a property or purchase land, they need talk to their local electric utility to determine if their chosen site is compatible with its estimated energy demand. And if growers don’t have a sense of what their estimated energy demand is, they need to go back and research their equipment options and expected grow area. 

If the site’s current power service is inadequate, the utility will work with its customers to help them understand what it will take to get powered up. Unfortunately, far too many growers learn deep into construction that their site needs an expensive upgrade, which can be especially costly when the required work delays harvest by months.  

Furthermore, growers who plan to take advantage of utility incentives for energy-efficient equipment purchases absolutely must seek pre-approval from the utility; if not, the utility will most likely refuse to issue a rebate check, leaving growers with tens of thousands of dollars of potential rebates in the compost heap.

2. Not Considering Facility Operating Costs 

One of the biggest mistakes I see growers make is not planning for the long (or even medium) term. In many cases, investors and growers intentionally choose to prioritize lower upfront costs at the expense of lower operating costs or facility performance. There may be legitimate reasons to do so, however, over time, the trade-off between lower upfront costs and a higher performance facility can be catastrophic for four main reasons: 

• Build-outs made with cheaper equipment will cost far more over their lifetime than more efficient technologies in terms of both less efficient operation and more frequent burn-outs.

• Less-expensive builds are made with materials potentially more prone to failure, whether it be from the allowing mold to form, cross-contamination between rooms, or infiltration of outside air. 

• When state and/or local regulations require growers to operate more efficient facilities, retrofitting an entire system to meet those more stringent standards will be much costlier than designing a facility properly the first time.

• Finally, operations that do not explicitly incorporate measures to reduce energy and water consumption may find themselves at a disadvantage during the local permitting process; as competition heats up for valuable operating permits, more sustainable grows will win out every time, all other things being equal.

With more comprehensive planning and a focus on longer-term outcomes, growers will be better positioned to operate higher-performance facilities that maximize resource efficiency and provide maximum yields. Indeed, more efficient upgrades maybe less expensive than many growers think, with generous utility rebates available more widely, innovative financing opportunities for more expensive technologies becoming more feasible, and regulators and permitting agencies giving more efficient facilities the green light more readily than their competitors. 

3. Reluctance to Embrace the Power of Data

Numbers can be a drag, but before you begin your first crop, you need to think about what data you want and how and where to collect it. Data is a key part of a successful grow; it shows what is working and what is not, and with the right combination of data points, growers can learn exactly what changes to make to improve yields and/or resource efficiency. The good news is tools exist to make working with data a whole lot easier. Several companies now offer flexible sensors that automatically deliver real-time data to a smartphone or computer, including temperature, lighting quality, humidity and vapor pressure levels, soil nutrient levels, air quality and so on. Some technologies can automatically translate these data points into signals for equipment to ramp up or ramp down, which further simplify a grower’s job.

Data intelligence will be critical as the cannabis industry scales to serve growing markets across the country. For example, little agreement exists on best practices regarding which technologies and approaches can best maximize energy and water efficiency. To address this knowledge gap, the Resource Innovation Institute (RII) has developed a tool to collect, aggregate and synthesize data on cultivation techniques and technologies. RII is rolling out Cannabis PowerScore in 2018 and encourages cultivators to anonymously input information about their energy use and yields—data that collectively will make the industry greener.

4. Not Considering Technology Advancements

The art and science of cannabis cultivation has developed largely in the absence of a robust knowledge-sharing network. Over decades of operating independent, illicit and small-scale grows, indoor cultivators have developed unique combinations of ingredients and environmental conditions to maximize quality and yield. However, because of complex system dynamics, those same recipes rarely, if ever, result in expected outcomes at a commercial scale. Growers who aren’t willing to consider new approaches when scaling to a commercial facility may find themselves sacrificing quality and yield, and certainly wasting energy and water in the process. 

Growers seeking the best results with the least amount of waste will need to educate themselves on industry best practices and/or work directly with an experienced and knowledgeable consultant who can provide insights into technologies and approaches designed for larger-scale operations. Equipment manufacturers are pouring millions of dollars into research and development for better lighting, cooling and dehumidification systems, water management systems, and other technologies that are more effective, more efficient, and—more importantly—designed to work in facilities tens or hundreds of thousands of square feet in size. In fact, improvements are advancing so quickly that savvy growers are constantly experimenting with new technologies, even those they may have discounted just a few years prior. Growers who insist on sticking with “tried-and-true” technologies and approaches without exploring the state-of-the-art may get left in their competition’s dust.

Sam Milton is principal of Climate Resources Group, a Boston-based climate and energy consulting firm that works with cannabis growers and their allies to lower the industry’s environmental footprint.

Top image: © Peter Kim | Dreamstime.com

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