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A Booming Cannabis Industry: But at What (Energy) Cost?

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In the wake of marijuana legalization efforts (and successes) across the United States, the cannabis industry has seen a phenomenal boom in sales. Indeed, for many it seems as if marijuana entrepreneurship is the go-to career choice if one is looking to start a small business (especially in California, Colorado, or Washington state). However, there is a serious downside to the cannabis industry: energy costs and a growing carbon footprint.

Hearkening back to the days of illegality, most marijuana growers have developed indoor productions. These grows require a staggering amount of electricity, including lighting, heating, and ventilation. The cost of this is only going to continue to increase as time passes, and the price is already high. According to Evan Mills, PhD and Senior Scientist at the University of California at Berkeley and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in his article “The carbon footprint of indoor Cannabis production” published in Energy Associates, indoor pot grows account for “approximately 1% of national electricity consumption—or the output of 7 large electric power plants. This energy, plus associated fuel use…, is valued at $6 billion annually…” These numbers should certainly raise some eyebrows, if not a full alarm amongst prospective and current cannabis growers. The personal financial investment aside, the amount of energy being funneled into keeping these indoor grows alive is staggering and will certainly have ecological repercussions.

However, the market for marijuana appears oblivious to these costs as the demand for the product continues to increase at an alarming rate. Cowen & Company, a bond brokerage firm with a long history, is currently winning the race to be the primary stockholder in cannabis research. According to their statistics, the marijuana market is expected to increase by $50 billion by 2026. Meaning that the industry is going to not only need more small business leaders, but better, less expensive methods to continue growing.

In Denver, Colorado, alone, nearly 45% of the city’s energy use was due to indoor cannabis grows. Denver is a city with a population of over 600,000 people (according to the 2015 census). The implications of what the indoor grow costs and energy usage will be if recreational marijuana is legalized in a city such as Los Angeles (3.98 million) or Chicago (2.75 million) is beyond comprehension. So long as the cannabis industry is locked indoors, its carbon footprint will quickly outpace nearly every other major energy-based industry within decades.

The obvious solution is to move grows outdoors. However, due to the stigma that still persists with the production and use of marijuana in many places, this may not be possible for growers. Furthermore, many growers prefer indoor grows because it allows for optimized control of lighting, heating, ventilation, and pest control for their crop. No need to worry about pesky pesticides when the pests are less prevalent behind closed doors, after all. Therefore, another solution must be sought.

One solution, outlined by Melanie Sevcenko in her Guardian article “Pot is power hungry: why the marijuana industry’s energy footprint is growing,” offers up the idea of LED lighting, which will help reduce energy costs and thus not only save money for individual growers, but help reduce the growing carbon footprint that indoor marijuana grows have created. Along the same vein, in Boulder, Colorado, the lighting company Boulderlamp has produced a new typed of “grow light” that claims to better support plant growth at a vastly reduced energy cost. It is called the 315W CDL Agro, and apparently is expected to improve plant production by about 25% and conserve energy use by 45%.

As the demand for marijuana increases nationwide, so, too, will research into different ways to control the energy costs that go along with its production. New growers trying to get in on the market need to be aware of the sometimes astronomical energy costs that go along with a cannabis grow in addition to what it will take merely to start and stay in operation. But as marijuana production becomes embraced by more and more cities and states in the US, there is a good chance that the stigma will eventually begin to fade and better solutions will present themselves in the future.

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