The Ever-Widening Energy Footprint of Cannabis
Discover what environmental challenges the industry faces and what can be done to solve them.
On August 10th, POLITICO published an op-ed on one of the more obscure (to non-cannabis community members, anyway) liabilities of continuing federal cannabis prohibition: the growing energy footprint of indoor cannabis cultivation. The issue caught even cannabis proponents like Bernie Sanders off-guard, and Green New Deal promoters Ed Markey and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chose not to address the topic head-on. What this only begins to address are attempts by both regulators and a maturing industry to finally make the cannabis industry into a truly green enterprise.
Like every conversation involving environmental conservation, the conversation is long overdue and requires a deeper review than most politicians or promoters are willing to provide in headline-oriented news cycles. Contributing to the conversation this time around is the recent release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, an eight-year assessment of all the climate data and research. The discoveries were stark — it argues that while difficult and even painful disruption to human society through human-caused climate change were inevitable, even worse disasters could be avoided if severe reductions to carbon emissions were made in this decade. This has cast even greater urgency upon the world’s leaders, who will be meeting in November at Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26, to discuss how these new findings will be implemented. In particular, President Biden has pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and as the POLITICO article mentions, he’ll need to get everything just right if he’s going to be at all successful. Leaving cannabis off the table, regardless of his obvious distaste for the industry, could sink Biden’s efforts.
Minimizing the environmental impact in the cannabis industry inevitably leads to discussions around cannabis business practices. Of course, cannabis’s energy footprint is only one of the environmental issues the industry faces. In the paper “Cannabis and the Environment: What Science Tells Us and What We Still Need to Know,” researchers pored through several papers to identify six environmental problems faced by growers: land-cover change, pesticide use, water use, energy use, water pollution and air pollution.
The question of managing energy use poses the biggest problems to indoor growers and has for over a decade. One often-cited 2012 report estimated that to produce one kilogram of cannabis, in indoor farm will emit the equivalent of three million cars. In 2018, the cannabis analytics firm New Frontier Data surveyed a cross-section of cultivators and found their companies used enough electricity to power 92,500 homes. And this year, researchers at Colorado State University analyzed energy inputs at grow sites around the country and converted them into corresponding greenhouse gas emissions. They estimated, depending on the area of the country, that the life cycle of one kilogram of indoor cannabis translated to 2283 to 5184 kilograms of CO2 — about as much as a car running for a year on 2000 liters of gas. And that’s not even taking illegal “trespass” grows, which follow no regulations, into account
Despite these impacts, powerful incentives exist to maintain indoor growing for now. Many states mandate expansive security around cannabis plants. Because of federal prohibition, growers can’t ship across state lines or create centralized grows that would drive energy efficiencies. And prevailing wisdom among cannabis connoisseurs maintains that indoor grown cannabis tends to be a superior to outdoor grown. While only reform on the state and federal level can do much about the first two, some in the industry have long worked to rehabilitate outdoor cannabis’s reputation. In 2015, Steve DeAngelo, former CEO of Harborside dispensary in Oakland, embarked on a “sungrown cannabis” marketing campaign. An accompanying video described indoor operations as a byproduct of prohibition and insisted that outdoor operations can match the same quality with far more sustainable energy inputs. In a recent interview with Nevada Public Radio, founder/president Paris Balaouras of MJ Holdings extolled the low humidity and high temperatures in which his outdoor operations apparently thrive. “We’ve proved that it’s not only a good way to do it, but a better way to do it, out there,” he told NPR producer Mike Prevatt.
Other solutions involve the steady implementation of LED grow lights, which are replacing the high-pressure sodium lamps of old. Authors of the Cannabis and the Environment paper point to regulations such as Massachusetts which require cannabis businesses to create locally relevant energy plans. What clearly isn’t on the table is doing nothing. As John Hale recently wrote in the financial investment research portal Morningstar, “The specter of regulation puts pressure on companies to address [these risks] sooner rather than later by focusing on efficiency and innovation in the cultivation process. Those that do so can lower their long-term energy costs while also reaping the reputational benefits of being seen as sustainable cannabis producers.”