The pot industry is an energy hog
The nation’s booming marijuana sector is struggling to go green.
Analysts and state regulators say the cannabis industry — including states that have legalized recreational pot and those that offer it only for medicinal purposes — is outpacing many other areas of the economy in energy use, racking up massive electricity bills as more and more Americans light up.
“The basic issue is the lighting intensity inside these grow facilities is much, much higher than anything else. They like these facilities brighter than an operating room,” said Ron Flax, the chief building official in Boulder County, Colorado, who spearheads one of the nation’s leading programs designed to incentivize weed producers to cut their power use.
The county’s Marijuana Energy Impact Offset Fund, which tacks on a 2.16-cent surcharge for each kilowatt-hour of electricity used by grow facilities, is something of a model for other states, cities and counties that also recognize the growing energy drain that has resulted from the rapid expansion of legal cannabis.
Data show the issue, often lost beneath the societal and medical arguments around pot, deserves attention.
Recent estimates show that indoor cannabis cultivation racks up as much as $6 billion each year in energy costs. Pot produced indoors can use as much as 5,000 kilowatt-hours of energy to produce 1 kilogram of product output, according to research compiled by RenewableEnergyWorld.com.
The $6 billion-per-year figure is equivalent to about 1.7 million American homes and is about 1 percent of total national electricity consumption. The annual greenhouse gas pollution from the indoor cannabis industry is equivalent to that of about 3 million cars, said Evan Mills, an energy analyst and research affiliate at the University of California at Berkeley.
Indoor cultivation is estimated to spew as much as 15 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year — though some industry analysts say that data point and others are incomplete and premature, and that it’s too early to truly capture the carbon footprint of the fledgling sector.
It’s also unclear how the Justice Department’s approach to marijuana laid out by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week could affect the industry and, by extension, the amount of energy it uses. Mr. Sessions rescinded Obama-era policies spelling out a hands-off approach from the federal government toward states with legal recreational pot.
Still, current energy-use projections are eye-popping.
In California, for example, which produces more pot than any other state in the nation, Mr. Mills said indoor pot growing accounts for about 3 percent of all electricity use in the state.
Figures in other states are similar — and those numbers almost surely will go even higher if the Justice Department doesn’t shut down the sector.
Seven states and the District of Columbia now allow recreational marijuana use, and four — California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada — passed ballot measures in November allowing non-medical consumption. With those legalizations will come massive production explosions.
Nearly two dozen other states allow weed only for medical use.
Analysts say energy use across the marijuana industry varies wildly, with indoor grow sites responsible for massive electricity drains and outdoor locations carbon-free.
“At one end of the spectrum, cannabis is cultivated outdoors exclusively relying on the sun’s energy for its full life cycle. In this model, there is no draw from the power grid,” said Brittny Anderson, director of operations at the Cannabis Conservancy, an organization that certifies growers that eliminate waste, conserve energy and take other steps to operate more environmentally friendly practices.
“On the other end of the spectrum, cannabis is cultivated exclusively indoors in a poorly designed facility using inefficient equipment, no scheduling optimization and is powered from coal,” she said. “This type of facility’s energy consumption is of major concern and contributes to climate change.”
In Boulder County, Mr. Flax said, a key problem was that growers found it difficult to track how much energy they were using and, from a comparative point of view to other industries, whether they were energy-efficient. He said the county government’s program helped roll out monitoring tools to better capture energy use.
“There was this general consensus that growers were using too much energy, and it’s sort of like being told you’re driving too fast, but without a speedometer it’s tough to know how much energy you’re using,” he said. “Even growers that were motivated and very interested in reducing their energy, they really didn’t have the tools to do that effectively.”
On a broader scale, the Resource Innovation Institute — a Portland, Oregon-based organization comprised of leaders in energy and climate policy, utility conservation, and other areas — recently launched the website CannabisPowerScore.org, which lets growers anonymously submit data to assess their energy use.
Derek Smith, the institute’s founder and executive director, said the site will provide critical information for utilities and growers, especially as legal cannabis spreads to other states. He also contends that much of the energy-use data that is widely cited should be taken with a grain of salt.
“There are really no data or standards or best practices, so any extrapolation of energy or carbon impact from the cannabis industry is relatively hyperbolic,” he said, pointing out that, among other considerations, it’s an entirely different ballgame for growers to get power from renewable sources than from pollution-spewing coal-fired power plants.
But Mr. Smith acknowledged the challenges that lie ahead for the sector as it tries to cut energy use and, in the process, reduce costs. He said that while the early response to the power score website has been positive, growers remain reticent to share information with anyone.
“A lot of folks, unfortunately, believe their energy practices are a trade secret,” he said. “They generally don’t want to share much about anything that they’re doing, not just energy.”
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