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Zero Impact Indoor Cannabis Cultivation
Emily Earlenbaugh

By 2020 I’d like to see cannabis become sustainable. When my colleagues at Fleurish Farms and I were thinking about what the cannabis industry needs most, we were immediately drawn to the environmental dilemma that cultivators are in. Today’s cannabis industry faces some big challenges when it comes to environmental sustainability. Between water and electrical usage, our ‘green’ industry is having a bigger impact on the environment than most of us would like. Our big idea to help the future is zero impact indoor cannabis. We thought ‘What if we could create premium-quality, high-yield indoor cannabis without taking power from the grid or water from the ground? It could solve some big environmental challenges.’ Our lead researcher, Dr. Josh Earlenbaugh, PhD was the visionary who first conceptualized the solution – a new way to bring the sun indoors – drastically cutting the environmental impact of indoor growing.

fleurishvisionaryOne of the biggest environmental challenges for cannabis cultivation is the amount of electricity being used on artificial lighting, cooling, heating, and dehumidifying cultivation spaces. Indoor growing is the biggest culprit for energy use but even greenhouse and outdoor cultivation can require some power. Historically, most indoor cultivators have used large HPS lights, like those used in streetlights. These consume large amounts of electricity and in urban areas like Denver, where indoor grows are becoming increasingly common, there is an increasing demand on the power grid. Denver’s electrical consumption went up 45% after recreational cannabis became legal. And some estimate that 1% of all the electricity in the US, and 3% of the electricity in California, goes to power grow operations. This energy usage is costly for the cultivator, and the environment.

Outdoor growing requires much less electricity (in the right climates none). But while growing in the open sun solves one problem, it creates others. The outdoor environment is difficult to control. It is open to pests, moisture, temperature fluctuations, wind, and harsh UV rays, all of which affect yield and the quality of the end product. Unlike indoor cannabis which can also be grown all year round, and in any climate, outdoor is only viable in certain places and at certain times of the year.

Even in those areas where outdoor conditions are ideal, water consumption is the highest in outdoor cultivation. And in areas where water is scarce, like much of California, some would argue that saving water is even more important than reducing electrical use. This offers few choices for cultivators interested in environmental preservation – high water use, or high energy use isn’t a great dilemma.

At Fleurish Farms, we cut through this dilemma, with a new cultivation technique designed to make indoor cannabis sustainable. DSS SunGrown Indoor™ brings natural sunlight into the controlled indoor environment. This ‘Dynamic Supplemental Sunlight’ provides natural, full spectrum light with 150-600 umols and drastically reduces energy and water use, while increasing cannabis quality and yield.    

To bring the sun indoors, our DSS SunGrown Indoor™ Systems uses Solatube tubular daylighting devices (TDD). While TDDs have primarily been used for illuminating workplaces, grocery stores, school and warehouses, we saw potential for improving indoor cultivation. So over the past two years we have been testing Solatube Daylighting Systems to develop an effective cultivation method, and as a result we have become the exclusive representative of Solatube Daylighting Systems to the indoor agriculture space.

solatube

Solatube TDDs feature several patented technologies that set them apart from competitors and optimize performance for indoor growing. The Collector, which sits above the roofline, increases low-angle light capture, as you find in early and late day and in winter months, while rejecting overpowering midday sun. Ultra-reflective Spectralight Infinity ® tubing sends full-color spectrum light indoors and reduces heat transfer. Further, light transfer can be modulated with an in-tube dimmer, providing even more control to the indoor environment. Whereas skylights, windows, or greenhouse panels transfer tremendous amounts of UV and heat along with natural light, Solatube Systems deliver the positive aspects of natural light without transferring UV and heat that usually accompany it. With less heat, cooling costs are significantly reduced and less water is required.

However, simply installing these TDDs and placing a plant beneath them is not a viable solution. One challenge we ran into was what to do when the sun isn’t shining. Even though Solatube Systems optimize light capture, at some times of the year there isn’t as much light. Because indoor growers produce year round, we added energy efficient LED lights to our DSS SunGrown Indoor™ System to supplement the natural light. With these supplementary lights, we can ensure consistent coverage whatever the weather or season.

We have found that some cultivators are suspicious of LED’s, but they have proven to be the best fit for our system. While LED’s have had a reputation in the past for failing to yield, the technology has come a long way. In the early days of LED’s most were focused on blue and red light, which promotes resin quality but doesn’t drive plant growth to the same extent as the white light. The secret to using LED’s effectively is having the right balance of colors – including a heavy dose of white light to increase yield. Not all LED’s work, and there is a large variety of LED’s on the market, but some are able to outperform HPS systems watt for watt.

“Using the proper balance between natural sunlight & artificial light is also a difficult and complex system to manage” says Dr. Jonathan Cachat (Fleurish Farms, CEO). “We were able to partner with Grownetics (Boulder, CO) for all of our data integration, automation and collection needs. So more than just simply installing Solatubes in a roof and expecting plant growth, the DSS SunGrown Indoor™ system consists of integrations between natural and artificial light sources, and an intelligent rule-based system to ensure the plants are receiving exactly what they need at the times they need it.” Over the last two years, the Fleurish Farms team has committed the R&D resources to perfect and optimize this system and shared the results at the New West Summit (Oct 15/16 in SF).

At our farm we use DSS SunGrown Indoor™ lighting in combination with water recycling technologies, and solar panels, to grow cannabis without taking electricity from the grid, or water from the ground. This is our idea of zero impact cannabis. No energy costs, no water costs, just premium indoor quality cannabis powered by the sun.

dss_sungrownWe are growing this way on our farm now but in 2020 we’d like to see zero impact cannabis become the standard for indoor cultivation. Why continue to drain any of our precious natural resources (or our personal financial resources) when we have sustainable methods that produce premium quality cannabis now?

Cultivators building or renovating grow spaces are in the best position to further this mission. Growers can bring on the sustainable future by retiring their HPS lights and making the switch to DSS SunGrown Indoor™. Consultants and educators can help by talking about this energy and water conserving technology with others. Consumers can help by asking their retailers for sustainably grown cannabis. Together we can create a sustainable future for the cannabis industry as well as the planet.

This article is part of Cannabis 2020, an initiative brings together thought leaders from across the cannabis ecosystem – cultivators, policy experts, lawyers, patients, doctors, scientists, advocates, and entrepreneurs, among others – to each share a big “push the envelope” idea they would like to see become reality by 2020. Want to share your big idea? Get in touch.

2020