Microgrids As An Energy Solution for Cannabis
For cannabis growers in California – particularly in the rapidly expanding legal indoor market – there are few concerns as constant and costly as energy. Issues with capacity and access have become routine, as companies grow and the state’s overburdened grid struggles to keep up with demand, and it’s own managerial shortcomings. DR Micrgogrid is a Southern California based utility provider, originally built to adapt to the massive and changing energy needs of the state’s many industries, including the gigantic agriculture market; California agriculture generated over $100 billion in economic activity in 2018. DR Microgrid has now turned their attention and solutions to cannabis, in a moment of increasingly urgent need for the budding but rapidly growing industry.
A ‘microgrid’ is pretty much what it sounds like; an independent ‘energy island’, based on traditional and renewable energy sources, that allows the customer to exist outside of the high costs, inefficient customer care, and breaches in trust and service that the large utility providers often come along with. When they were approached — initially by Adam Meyn of Cannatech Network — about the major energy issues and costs specifically faced by the growing cannabis industry, they recognized both a need and an opportunity. Cannabis, Hemp, and Controlled Environment Agriculture is the nation’s fastest-growing agriculture sector. The modern growing process has kept the cannabis industry a substantial energy consumer, and the utilities have struggled to provide adequate power to support its growth. This problem is compounded for facilities in remote areas, where infrastructure wasn’t designed to supply the energy capacity needed for growers.
DR Microgrid provides power, protection, and proper profile through the building of microgrids, addressing what they have identified as three main areas of concern for the industry:
Not Enough Power – Facilities are being denied interconnection and service upgrade requests, and often made to wait several months for service from the Utility – forcing businesses to put operations on hold.
Inconsistent Power – Facilities are experiencing blackouts and brownouts (in the past year more often from temporary reductions in system voltage or total system capacity) have had lights, computers, and other electronic devices ruined – causing disruption and sometimes loss of production.
Power Profile – Cities in California are now proposing restrictions on cannabis growers after backlash from residential consumers facing rising electricity bills, and the state potentially missing its energy reduction goals – blamed by many at least partially on the high energy use typically required for indoor grows.
The DR Microgrid combines generation from solar, fuel cells, CHP, and natural gas generators, along with energy storage and advanced controls. These all combine to give the facility the ability to “island” itself from the grid when blackouts and brownouts occur, when rates are the highest, or when supporting the grid network via demand response. “We have been called in to provide support to facilities for various reasons surrounding these three areas of concern,” says DR Microgrid president AJ Perkins. He also gives some background on the needs that introduced him and DR Microgrid to the cannabis market and its specific – and urgent – energy needs. “Cannatech Network brought us in to help a high profile facility that was only able to get 2500 amps but needed 3500. We see many facilities that need an extra 200-400 amps and are waiting an average of 15 months to get the power they need. We learned of a facility that was running their diesel generator every day to supplement their power, and the California Air Resources Board came and removed their generator. We are able to come in with a microgrid and give them a specially designed system that can be installed and commissioned quicker, reducing their cost of delay.” This highlights another of the uniquely needed services of this new agricultural wave: reducing the time it takes to get energy needs met, and more efficiently beginning or continuing operations. One point of frustration for many cannabis growers; large utility companies often do not trust that cultivators will be in business long enough to warrant an expedited upgrade, and the waitlists have grown accordingly. DR Microgrid is here to help, and can provide increased amperage within months instead of years.
Indoor and Outdoor: DR Microgrid For Safety and Efficiency
The DR Microgrid solution is not just for indoor grows and facilities, however, as AJ further elaborates. “We have a few of these same customers that are at the end of lines and although blackouts were not prevalent for them (at the time), the fluctuation of power had caused their lights to explode causing a fire in one of the grow rooms and destroying their crop with fire and smoke.” DR Microgid provides stabilization from both reductions and surges that can otherwise endanger a crop or operation. This scenario isn’t just hypothetical, either; a recent Northern California emergency power outage by PG&E threatened thousands of cannabis farms and indoor grows.
Another area of concern is the state-mandated electronic tracking system needed to allow transporters and distributors to continue to operate when power is out. With a microgrid, they are now able to have consistent, reliable energy that would allow for normal operations for hours or days at a time.
Sometimes just keeping up with trends in energy efficiency is enough to get growers saving energy and reducing strain on the grid. “We had one customer that wanted a microgrid to help reduce their usage specifically because he wanted to ‘look like his neighbor.’ He said that he knew that his power bill was many times higher than other businesses in his area, and he also didn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb.” For customers such as this, who are not prepared for the unexpected, or are in need of more energy independence, there are lower-cost solutions as well. “Rather than doing a full facility offset, he chose to go with a microgrid that would reduce his utility costs by 60% and protect just essential loads. In the event of a power outage, his crops and main electrical equipment would still operate, protecting his business.”
The California wildfire season has become more of a year-round phenomenon, and public safety power outages are happening more frequently, especially toward the end of the calendar year when the bulk of this year’s multi-billion dollar crop is coming in from the field for processing and drying. Maintaining temperature and humidity control is also just as crucial to these facilities, and resiliency is now at a premium. An indoor facility experiencing two days of no indoor light could ruin an entire crop.
In a state and industry committed to the cleanest and most efficient supplier of energy needs available, microgrids provide energy independence. They are an “energy insurance policy,” used for emergencies and everyday operations alike. Through combining on-site power generation, battery storage with intelligent controls that “island” from the grid, critical equipment can still operate during power outages. DR Microgrid is helping create the path to a resilient, reliable, and cleaner energy footprint for our businesses, our communities, and our grid.