Energy conservation and marijuana: Staying green while growing green

As medical and legal cannabis continues to sweep the nation, with more than half the states in the union having a medical marijuana program and several with legal adult use, energy utilities are struggling to cope with an increased energy demands on the burgeoning industry, the New York Times reports. 

Besides blown transformers and blackouts for utilities in some places, the rise of marijuana has also raised clean-air concerns in parts of the country where fossil fuels are a main source of electric power.

Even in places where growing marijuana is legal, cultivators must keep their crops out of public view. And in many cases, growers prefer having the ability to control the crops by raising their plants indoors.

Historically, indoor marijuana growers, had relied on hot high-energy lights. When you factor in air-conditioning or ventilation, the energy used to grow marijuana was mindboggling, experts have said.

But under an incentive program in Washington state, a company called Evergrow installed  more than 100 sophisticated LED grow lights, hoping to reduce costs without sacrificing quality or yield. The utility, Puget Sound Energy, which gets about a third of its electricity from hydropower and most of the rest from coal and natural gas, offers grants to help customers offset the cost of energy-efficiency upgrades, the New York Times article says.

While LED lights are more expensive up front — they can run $1,600 each, as opposed to $350 for the high-pressure sodium lights traditionally used — their lower electricity requirements mean they can save money in the long run.

Utilities elsewhere have felt the energy impact of liberalized marijuana laws.

For example, Pacific Power, based in Portland, Ore., traced some neighborhood power outages to clusters of residential customers who were taking advantage of state laws allowing up to four marijuana plants per household for personal use. In Denver, home to one of the largest and most advanced cannabis industries, demand for energy and water ran high enough that the city’s Department of Environmental Health convened a working group to develop recommendations to make businesses more sustainable.

The cultivation and sale of marijuana, though permitted under a patchwork of state laws, are still federal crimes. As a result, many electric utilities have been reluctant to offer incentives or rebates to cannabis growers for energy-efficiency upgrades. That has been particularly true in the Pacific Northwest, because many of the region’s energy discount programs are financed by the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal nonprofit marketer of electricity whose rules prohibit subsidizing cannabis operations.

And yet growers, many with experience in illicit operations, have often resisted LEDs, preferring to follow their own tried-and-true methods. Many say that earlier versions of LEDs simply did not perform as well as the high-pressure sodium or metal halide lamps that growers favored, especially when the plants began producing flowers, the valued part of the yield.

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