By Les Grafton
While the hemp plant is robust and hearty and grows without much human intervention, commercially-grown cannabis is typically farmed in environmentally controlled, energy-intensive greenhouses. The enormous electrical requirements needed to produce commercial cannabis are placing overwhelming demands on power grids, and utility companies lack the labor force and capital to complete expensive upgrades to handle the ever-increasing need for more power.
Cannabis growers have two choices: finance the expensive upgrades themselves or build their own micro grids. Let’s look at several of these alternative power sources.
Despite the recent hype, fuel-cell technology is an unlikely alternative for cannabis growers because of its astronomic upfront cost, short lifespan, and the high level of expertise required to operate and maintain. In fact, it is used mostly as a supplemental power source since the technology is still being tested.
Solar power is still relatively expensive on a cost-per-kilowatt basis; it takes a tremendous number of panels and battery storage to produce any meaningful levels of power. In addition, users must invest in extensive real estate and rely on the cooperation of Mother Nature. Wind power also falls in this category. If it makes sense geographically, solar and wind energies are viable options to supplement power needs, when used in conjunction with generators.
Despite the high price of fuel, diesel generators represent a tried and true power source due to their reliability and longevity. As long as they are serviced and maintained properly, and depending on specifications, they can average 3 to 5 years of continuous use before needing an overhaul.
With lower fuel costs, NG/LPG generators are by far the most widely utilized stand-alone power sources in the cannabis industry. These machines are typically more electrically and thermally efficient than diesel generators and are the most emission-friendly of the generator options. They can also be combined with heat-recovery equipment to create cogeneration (often referred to as “cogen”) power plants, which allow the growers to capture the heat from the exhaust and provide inexpensive methods of heating and cooling through the use of absorption chillers.
Additionally, more sophisticated cogen plants can incorporate CO2 scrubbers to capture, clean, and utilize the gas from the exhaust for injection into their greenhouses and indoor operations, reducing and even eliminating the cost of CO2 deliveries. In fact, Combined Heat and Power (CHP or cogen) is an ideal power solution for indoor and greenhouse applications: not only does it lower overall operation costs, but it is also a more environmentally-friendly option, capturing the bulk of emissions and thus lowering the release of CO2, NOx, and other gases into the atmosphere.
Growers who wonder why they should purchase a backup generator have not thought about how much money they will lose if their utility power grid fails. Even those parts of the country that enjoy stable and reliable grids can experience outages for an hour or more. In the Pacific Northwest, a nasty wind storm caused power outages a few years ago that lasted three to five days in the cities and up to two weeks in some outlying areas. What would it cost cannabis growers to be without power for that long? In the big picture, the purchase of a power generator is a relatively inexpensive crop insurance policy.
Les Grafton is the Director of Power Distribution at Critical Power Products and Services, which remains at the forefront of this new and exciting market and will continue to explore innovative solutions for the power, cooling, and heating needs of the cannabis industry for years to come.