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Growing Colorado Cannabis Is Energy Hungry Work, But Innovation Could Change That

Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Bright orange high-pressure sodium lights have traditionally been used to grow cannabis.

Inside a nondescript warehouse south of I-70 in Denver, Nick Hice opens a door into a large room holding a few hundred cannabis plants. One of the first things you notice about the room: It's bright. Glaring yellow high-pressure sodium light fixtures are strung from the ceiling. The whole place has a feverish glow. Even though it's indoors, Hice and his workers here at Denver Relief typically wear sunglasses when working here.

It's those lights that are the key to growing commercial marijuana successfully.

"It's very important. It's one of the things we talk about the most with these artificial environments," said Hice, an expert grower and operations manager at Denver Relief and a founding partner in its associated cannabis consulting business.

There's a cost that comes with using the same kind of lighting technology used to brighten stadiums and streets: high electric bills. That's why some enterprising businessmen are creating alternatives that might help cannabis growers cut down on their electricity load.

Follow Hice a few steps down a hall and around a corner, and he opens the door to another room. This one's smaller, quieter. It's also a completely different color. The light beaming on the plants here is soft and blue-white. These are LED lights, and this room is an experiment in what may become the future of the industry.

Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC
The blueish lights of LEDS beam down on cannabis plants in an experimental trial at Denver Relief.

The room is quieter partly because it doesn't have as many fans blowing and ducts sucking air out of it. High pressure sodium lights aren't just bright electricity hogs, they also heat up the room, and without climate control the plants couldn't survive. Hice tells a story about how one time the circuit breaker on the HVAC at their grow facility went out, threatening thousands of dollars in valuable plants.

It's that one-two punch of electricity used for lights and hard-core HVAC systems that has growers looking to innovators like Neil Yorio, of BIOS. Yorio's a plant scientist who has studied the light needs of plants, including in past work as a NASA contractor. On a recent weekday, he had dropped in to check in on the plants, and the lights.

Yorio waved a probe over top of the plants, measuring the wavelength of the light hitting them. He used that measurement to determine it was time to lower the lights to 18 inches above the plant canopy, so they would get an even distribution of powerful light.

The LED light fixtures in the test room were developed by BIOS with the marijuana industry in mind. Yorio's company believes they can sell growers on the similar yields and cost savings.They are starting by doing trial runs in places like Denver Relief.

So far, it's going pretty well, said Nick Hice. An earlier trial had so-so results - yields were fine, but the flowers were not as aromatic and flavorful as cannabis grown under traditional lighting. So they tried again, tweaking the light quantity and the air temperature. And in a blind taste test of the most recent batch of Gorilla Glue Number Four, Hice said his tasters couldn't tell the difference.

That's good news for Yorio's efforts. The other hurdle, of course, is selling growers on the added cost. Right now LED light fixtures like the BIOS one cost at least two to three times as much as high pressure sodium lights. But, Yorio counters, the energy savings on both lighting and HVAC does pay for itself, and relatively soon - he said in about a year.

"The LED technology offers an immediate solution to one of their biggest problems, and that's the energy consumption," Yorio said.

Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC
Neil Yorio of BIOS measures the wavelength of light from LED lights being used to grow cannabis using less energy.

Other growers estimate it would take around 18 months to two years to break even with the higher prices of LEDs. They also point out that one of the biggest points of resistance to LEDs is not just cost, but past experience. Growers have been sold LED products in the past that performed poorly, and they're reluctant to mess with a system that, right now, is working for them.

Yorio believes those growers can be won over; that's one reason his company runs trials and is producing white papers documenting their results.

BIOS is far from the only business looking to capitalize on helping cannabis shave dollars off its energy bill. Stephen Keen, the head of Surna, a lighting and cooling company specializing in the cannabis sector, has an engineer's eye for waste, and sees it all over the industry.

"I go into grows and I see them wasting 50 percent of their energy. And I know that sounds crazy, but it's easy to prove through mathematics," he said.

Keen sees waste when light falls on ceilings or walls rather than plants. He sees it in dirty reflectors, and in inefficient cooling systems. It all adds up.

With Surna, he sells growers more efficient ways of heating and cooling grows. There's a lot of potential money to be saved, he estimates. Say you take a 15,000-square-foot facility with 250 lights.

"You are looking at approximately $30,000 a month electric bill," he said.

Cutting that by 10 or 20 percent adds up. And more and more, facilities are a whole lot bigger than that.

Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC
Cannabis is likely to move toward becoming a commodity crop, with low prices and lots of competition. Growers will have to get more efficient to stay in business, experts say.

In addition to his existing cooling systems, Keen also developed a light fixture with a built-in cooling mechanism; the beta version sits in his office, and they just sold their first big order to a new customer. He's now working on a new kind of growing facility, one that takes the benefits of greenhouses - natural light - but offers the climate of a warehouse environment.

If there's so much money being wasted, it's easy to wonder why growers haven't already invested in better systems and technology. One reason, Keen suspects, was a lack of access to capital in the early days. Without banking, many new growers were hard up for cash, and decided on lights and HVAC that were cheaper in the short run even if more costly long term.

Kayvan Khalatbari, who works with Nick Hice at Denver Relief and also consults for grows starting up across the country, suspects that this will soon change. Now that the business is more mature, cash flow isn't a problem. As new competition comes online, the price of cannabis will fall. This will force efficiency. When that happens, he said, "I think that it's going to be a pretty dramatic shift."

For some, this will mean a move to greenhouse growing. That's already happening in parts of Colorado. Although it's harder to get high quality plants in greenhouses, for some products, like oils and edibles, that's less of an issue. For warehouse growers, it's going to mean LEDs, or smarter HVAC, or maybe all of the above, or some other technology that helps boost yields and lower costs.

Ultimately, said Khalatbari, cannabis will go the way of many commodities, as price falls result in consolidation and economies of scale. He sees the market for marijuana becoming similar to the market for beer. There will be cheap, Bud Light-style cannabis for the masses, and artisanal craft cannabis on the margins. All of it, of course, will be produced far more efficiently than any of it is today.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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