Reducing Energy Use Will Improve Cannabis’s Carbon Footprint

Indoor cannabis was created by cultivators looking for safe spaces to supercharge their plants. Prohibition and opportunism led intrepid growers to take to basements, warehouses and other grow environments.

Some of the earliest reporting on when cannabis turned indoors was in 1995, by plant dad Michael Pollan, who wrote in the New York Times that it was during the Reagan years that cannabis took to the indoor lifestyle and subsequent energy use.

It’s not just lights that take up kilowatts—air filters, dehumidifiers and temperature-regulation devices like fans and air conditioning crank up the potency and the electric bill. Cultivators who use these techniques are still profiting plenty, and as high as the costs are, high-potency indoor cannabis fetches higher prices in legal shops and on the black market.

Just look at the estimates coming out of the first recreationally legal state, Colorado. A whopping  4 percent of Denver’s energy was found to be routed to indoor cannabis opps. Colorado Public Radio wrote in 2018, “The majority of the city’s marijuana plants are grown indoors. The industry has traditionally used energy-intensive lights to maximize yields. But city officials are encouraging more sustainable growing practices that involve LED lights and fine-tuning cooling systems to use less electricity.”

Even if the energy use were efficient, until we have no fossil fuels being used to power cannabis grows, we will have an environmental issue that will only get worse as bigger markets legalize. Colorado uses coal to generate electricity—you can’t get more nineteenth-century than that. Big Buds Mag recently wrote, “In the years ahead, the current status quo will no longer be an option for the cannabis industry. Indoor growers simply can’t be the worst agricultural emitters of climate-change pollutants on the planet and survive without consequences. If they stay dirty, rejection by the public or punitive measures adopted by governments may force them out of business. Cannabis will still be grown, but in energy-efficient greenhouses or outdoors.” Just imagine if all of our food was grown with electricity—it would dramatically increase our fossil fuel problem.

Noah Cornell, a California-based director of cultivation at Aster Farms and consultant, is very clear about his feelings toward indoor growing. He told Emerald Magazine, “In a time when the headlines are dominated by the growing threat of climate change, it seems insane to me that the demand for indoor cannabis production is so high.”

In the same state as Hippie Hill and Rainbow Market, where low to no waste became the norm for so many, it is dissonant and odd that indoor cannabis is so popular. Cornell continued, “Research shows that the indoor cultivation industry’s power usage is the equivalent of powering 2 million homes, with the emissions of three million cars. With half of California’s electrical power coming from non-renewable resources, producing clean, sun-grown cannabis is the obvious choice.”

Aster Farms’ growing operation focuses on from-seed plants and natural sunshine as a light source, but supplemental lighting is not off the table. Cornell said, “As our production model intensifies, we may use some supplemental lighting, but our usage will be more akin to lighting a Christmas tree than a football stadium.”

Lighting may seem like an abstract concept to a consumer who isn’t familiar with growing, but the Northwest Power and Conservation Council found that a typical Oregon grow with just four plants can use the same power as 29 refrigerators. That is staggering, whatever your familiarity with cultivation.

A 2017 paper on energy efficiency in cannabis by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project  noted that hybrid LED/traditional light grows could dramatically reduce energy consumption, but high startup costs keep indoor cannabis on the black market model. According to the paper, “For indoor grow operations, LED lighting fixtures are being successfully applied to vegetative rooms, saving up to 50% of the lighting energy, compared to the standard practice. For flower rooms, double-ended, high-pressure sodium (HPS) fixtures save 20-25% compared to the standard HPS fixtures.”

Incorporating the latest tech could drop their costs and save the earth, but you don’t see that taking root—yet. This report also noted that with the right calibration, LED lighting can even be used in notoriously light-greedy flower rooms. “While less common, some growers are successfully applying LED fixtures or LED/HPS hybrid designs for up to 30-40% energy savings in flower rooms.”

Aster Farms and other sun-grown operations are leading the charge, and it’s about more than just light and electricity. Cornell told us, “We’ve been growing clean, sun-grown cannabis in living soils for a decade and are proud to finally bring our products to the statewide legal market in California. The goal of our production model is to build soils and sink carbon, not release it into the atmosphere, as well as limiting our reliance on fossil fuels whenever possible.”

When asked what cultivators can do to reduce the light energy they use, Cornell said simply, “Grow under the sun!” ■

Emerald contributor since May 2017

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