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“Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow.” ― Lawrence Clark Powell

That Awkward Marijuana Energy Addiction

Posted on 1/22/2018 by in energy efficiency

Phil Davis, VP Sterling Energy Assets, is facilitating a panel on the topic of marijuana growth and the effects it has on the energy industry at Distributech 2018, January 23 in San Antonio.


Marijuana creates an interesting challenge for our industry, and one that we will explore at #Distributech 2018 in San Antonio, January 23.  Cannabis is in the news lately, more so than usual. Depending on the frame of reference, it can be a medical salvation (29 states), a harmless form of recreation (8 states), decriminalized (46 states), or a scourge on humanity (3 states). At the federal level, cannabis is a Schedule 1 drug that remains completely illegal, and currently likely to be prosecuted.

For the local utility, this presents problems. Measured in dollars, cannabis horticulture is big business. Measured in megawatts, it is huge. Per square foot, it is more energy intense than virtually any other major U.S. industry – like steel or aluminum for example. While some providers grow it outdoors, much of it is grown inside.

That requires light; lots of light. Think 1,000-watt high pressure sodium fixtures for every 16-25 square feet of floor space. Marijuana is a finicky plant. Too much moisture, and it suffocates. Professional growers use sophisticated HVAC systems to maintain precise temperature and humidity levels. Those systems also draw major energy. Pot is also a lucrative industry which attracts many entrepreneurs who are not particularly concerned with energy efficiency. They need predictable and repeatable results, which makes them reluctant to try newer technologies (such as LEDs) if there is any chance at all of diminished production or quality. Reputation spreads by word of mouth. Recovery from a poor-quality product can take a long time.

Legal issues prevent better planning. Typically, when a major new industry comes to town, the local utility, chamber of commerce, and mayor’s office work together to support a good launch. Pot just shows up. Grow houses place sudden strains on distribution networks. These can cause significant reliability and safety issues for impacted circuits. In states where cultivation is legal, this is less of an issue, but growers remain cautious. Cultural changes take time.

Ironically, cannabis could be a boon to the industry. The loads are large, stable and flat. Organized grow houses are tailor made for microgrids, solar, storage, and many of the other leading-edge industry initiatives.

Many major industry vendors have well-proven products that address these needs. They are reluctant to engage “Big Cannabis” directly due to concerns the federal government may have and which may result in loss of government contracts.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District is addressing this head on. SMUD is working with local growers on several fronts. The first is location, location, location.

Grid improvement is a constant process. Equipment is strengthened and modernized, and the grid expands to meet population growth. At any given time, certain areas are more able to handle large new loads than others. SMUD works with growers to educate them on hook-up costs for upgrading facilities to meet expected loads and to ensure load estimates are reasonable.

More impressive is the utility’s commitment to energy efficiency. LEDs are evolving rapidly. A 435W high bay LED can produce equivalent light to a 1,000W HPS. However, the spectrum of light required is not the same as that for human use. SMUD is working with an established and sophisticated grower to do A/B comparisons and document results. This will be invaluable to both industries.

Tuesday afternoon, January 22, at 3PM, Distributech has organized a panel that will present and discuss these issues and results. I am honored to be the moderator, but the real experts come from SMUD, Xcel Energy, and SEVENLEAVES, a grower. We are excited about this because of the opportunity to offer informed discussion about a growing problem (sorry) facing more and more utilities.

Jeff Kaspar is Area Engineer for Xcel, based in Denver. He is the “feet on the street” solving these very issues in Colorado. He is smart, informed, and younger than the average utility employee. People like Jeff give me great confidence that our utilities will be even better tomorrow than they are today.

Ty Kearns is president of two SEVENLEAVES. He is emblematic if the well-trained and sophisticated people this industry is attracting. In researching this topic, I was surprised at the number of top engineering schools and Wall Street firms that have top talent to the industry. Ty specifically has been working with SMUD to find real solutions. Having a leader from this industry is a major coup for Distributech.

Our star is Jim Parks, Program Manager for SMUD. Jim submitted an abstract to the program committee. I have been working with Sterling Planet on energy strategies for grow houses, and was struggling with these issues. Jim’s abstract had an obvious WOW! factor. In subsequent conversations, it was clear that SMUD has taken a thoughtful and positive approach to this challenge. By the time of Distributech, he will have early results to discuss.

This panel has it all: Drama! Excitement! Intrigue! Answers! Won’t you join us Tuesday afternoon at 3PM in room 214C? We look forward to a lively time.

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