The new "green" industry is anything but. And it's a completely avoidable problem.
As a growing number of states flirt with marijuana legalization, they must grapple with how best to bring a multi-billion dollar industry out from the shadows and into the light of the regulated, tax-paying world. While both sides of the legalization debate cherry pick the results of these experiments to support their particular point of view, the new reality on the ground has highlighted one facet that few are talking about: marijuana production is a huge power suck.
At least producing marijuana indoors is a big fat electricity hog, which is how the vast majority of legal growhouses still operate. This issue is destined to become more pronounced in Colorado next month when the state opens the doors forstandalone production facilities. Previously, the state had an inefficient system in which production facilities had to be vertically integrated with retail outlets. This coming phase has prompted a run on warehouse spaces around the Centennial State, foretelling a rush of new electron-thirsty grow operations.
Traditionally, marijuana production has been an indoor activity—for understandable reasons. But why is a now kinda-sorta-legal plant still grown the same way it was under total prohibition? There's a number of contributing factors.
For one, there's a certain amount of inertia from an industry that grew up indoors—right or wrong, there is a pervasive idea that indoor cultivation gives growers a control over their product that might not be achievable outside. Some is due to security concerns (it's still a mostly cash business, though this will likely change with time). However, the biggest contributor might just be the evolving and conflicting patchwork of state and federal laws that make normal energy-efficient production process unfeasible. For now.
Marijuana: The Inadvertent Power Plant
According to a 2012 report from sustainability researcher and consultant Evan Mills, Cannabis production (legally sanctioned and otherwise) accounted for 1 percent of all national electricity consumption. To put that number in context: marijuana growhouses used the same amount of electricity as 2 million homes and equaled the carbon output of 3 million cars. Energy costs for indoor production cost $6 billion a year—six times the power needs of the entire U.S. pharmaceutical industry. A single marijuana growhouse has the same power needs of a similarly sized, energy-greedy data center.
This power thirst has even led to additional illegal activity. For example, in western Canada—where recreational pot is a prohibited, but very popular pastime—illegal "grow ops" have been the prime forces behind a wave of "electricity theft," to the tune of $100 million per year. This often takes the form of hacked meters. The regional energy utility, BC Hydro, has even created a team of electricity theft investigators tasked with cracking down on the activity.
So, how can tiny green plants be so energy-demanding? "Most of our power needs are from the lighting that we're using," explains Ellis Smith, the chief development officer with the American Cannabis Company, a consulting firm for the legal grow industry. "We're using very high power lighting—up to 1000 watts. These create a lot of heat in a very small space, so you need to pump in a lot of air conditioning. Someone needs to come in and disrupt this. Someone could come in and do something major here—this is where all our power consumption comes from and the costs are just so high."
All these indoor environmental controls not only add hefty costs to growhouse operators—where monthly energy bills have been reported to exceed $100,000—but they can cause a cavernous carbon footprint. And this is of particular concern as the localities that might be most amenable to the legal marijuana industry also tend to be most environmentally minded. For example, growhouses in oh-so-crunchy Boulder are required to purchase their energy from renewable sources, which has been estimated to drive costs up an additional 20 percent.
One alternative option for marijuana production is greenhouses. But this is far from an energy cure-all—at least not on the industrial scale. While the greenhouse model indeed cuts down on the need for some lighting (supplemental lights would still be necessary for cloudy days or when the days grow shorter), one still needs to account for other elements such as water, humidity, and supplemental CO2 (not to mention the construction of the actual greenhouse). And maintaining these factors takes energy and money.
The benefits of using greenhouses are truly felt when used in a climate that is already somewhat amenable to the plant in question all year round (i.e. not a Colorado winter; Cannabis tends to thrive in environment with lots of sun, 50 percent humidity, and a temperature around 78 degrees—give or take).
"Traditionally and historically, plants grown outdoors or in greenhouses are grown regionally, [and are] dependent on the local climate and what growers want. The challenge with Cannabis cultivation is that it must be grown in the state where it's legal," explains Brandy Keen, a vice president with Surna, a Colorado-based marijuana consulting firm specializing in grow technology. "You can't ship a Cannabis plant across state or international lines. So, what we're left with is having to grow a Cannabis plant in an environment that is not conducive to its growth. "
Many of these issues could be avoided if the crop were—like any other legal plant—grown outside. And while Cannabis can indeed be grown outdoors in Colorado, it could only be grown seasonally, thus limiting its scalability.
Should federal law eventually bend towards legalization's gravitational pull and facilitate legal marijuana cultivation and distribution, the plant would be able to be grown on larger scales in friendlier climates throughout the sunnier parts of the country.
For the time being, producers are left to search out sustainable (not to mention, cheaper) growhouse methods including using renewable fuels and water recycling techniques. A simple Google search for "legal Cannabis consultant" provides a window on to the rise of a marijuana consultant boom in the fields of sustainability, agriculture, and engineering.
"The industry is really really young. It's a baby industry, still" explains Keen. "People are just starting to realize the types of technologies that are available to them. There's just now private investment on a large scale. And the people who were successful early on are making enough money to really invest in these facilities in a way that is sustainable."
An Inevitably Greener Future?
Cultivation will inevitably expand where and when the plant can grow and increase yields. Cannabis is indigenous to southern and central Asia—basically all along The Silk Road. So, somewhere in the plant's genetic code lays the ability to grow and prosper in high-altitude Colorado or even overcast Washington state.
Irrespective of the plant's inherent hardiness, humans have continually demonstrated the ability to make plants grow just about anywhere. For example, some of the best premium cigar wrappers are grown in Connecticut, far from thehot humid regions of the Caribbean where most cigar leaf originates. And this agricultural feat came about before the era of genetic engineering, which greatly expands what any organism can achieve. The takeaway: plants can—with some elbow grease and assistance from technology—be trained grow outside their comfort zone.
In the end, all the debates surrounding sustainable energy and indoor vs. greenhouse cultivation may just be the result of a stop-gap moment in history. The thrust of the American electorate—particularly the younger segment of the American electorate—is relentlessly moving towards legalization. Regardless of your position, this is where the law is inevitably headed. There will, of course be hold-outs, but just as mass acceptance for gay marriage swept the country, what was once politically unthinkable can swiftly become legal reality. In the not-crazy-distant future, we may live in a country where outdoor marijuana farms are part of the rural tapestry.
As society becomes more concerned with its impact on the environment, regulators and consumers will call for marijuana to be grown in an energy-efficient manner, just like any other legal crop. And as the costs become untenable, growers will begin to demand this transition as well. "I feel that indoor cultivation will be a thing of the past in the next 8 to 12 years," says Smith. "It's the evolution of our industry. Our power consumption simply can't handle this."
This article is an excerpt from an article from pcmag.com, Sept 2014. Click here to view full article.