The truth behind the cannabis industry’s energy problem

The cannabis industry has exploded across North America in the past five years amidst a new wave of optimism and legalisation, with the combined CBD and recreational cannabis industries set to be worth more than $47.3 billion by 2025 in America alone.

However, the emerging industry has
been experiencing a number of teething problems, notably the greenhouse
emissions of growing the crop itself.

According to a recent report there was
a 45% spike in Denver’s energy consumption in 2016, which was a direct link to
the cannabis growing sector.

“The key in this emerging industry is
to be asset-light,” says
Joseph Maskell, founder of AAXLL.

“With billions spent just on
electricity in the US cannabis-growing industry, the companies that will
survive the next culling, which is already in process, will be those with low
capital outlays, no warehouses, no buildings, no machinery” he went on to say.

It’s also worth noting that much of
the USA’s cannabis is produced illegally due to it only being legal in 22
states, which sees annual estimates reach 3-4 percent of the entire country’s
energy consumption.

A report
by New Frontier Data found that legal and illegal cannabis cultivation combined
uses almost three times the amount of electricity as the entire Starbucks Corp,
with cannabis consuming 4.1 billion kilowatts per hour (KWh) compared with
Starbucks using only 1.7 billion KWh, which is still a huge amount of energy.

The legal cannabis industry uses
around 1.1 million megawatts per hour per year, which is sufficient enough to
power 92,500 homes.

The report revealed that “such growth has increased the size and complexity of the supply chain and the energy usage rate, and dramatically expanded the industry’s carbon footprint”.

Driving factor

It determined that the driving factor
of the huge increase in electricity usage was down to many cultivators making
the move from growing cannabis in outdoor fields to instead opting to utilise
greenhouses and indoor grow houses, which use more than 18 times the amount of
electricity to produce just one gram than outdoor set-ups.

Indoor growing systems can also
operate for 24 hours per day, using fans, lights and air conditioning systems
which add to the electricity consumption. To ensure the most profitable and
high yield harvest of a grower’s cannabis plants, it is optimal to use high
intensity lighting systems as well as high-powered air conditioning units in
order to shorten the plant’s natural growing cycle.

One of the benefits of utilising
indoor cultivation is it demands the least amount of water usage, which is
beneficial for states which struggle with droughts and lack of water in some
months such as California, but it remains to be the most energy intensive method
for growing cannabis.

The lights used in indoor cannabis
cultivation are around 70 times more energy intensive than those used in
commercial office buildings and even hospital operating rooms. The huge amount
of lighting eventually turns into heat which then transforms into humidity when
paired with the water released from the plants, which also demands
dehumidifying systems.

The enormous influx of electricity consumption risks putting a massive strain on the public utilities, as was the case in 2016 after Oregon legalised recreational cannabis. One of the main energy suppliers, Pacific Power, reported seven blackouts which were later found to be linked to cannabis production.

Shifting production

A study by staff scientist Evan Mills
from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found
that cannabis production has shifted indoors and legal indoor operations consume
around one percent of the total national power consumption. This figure is
equal to powering two million average-sized homes in the US.

Mr Mills also concluded after
narrowing the findings down that a single joint of cannabis is equal to a
100-watt lightbulb running consistently for 17 hours.

This study was undertaken in 2011,
with the cannabis industry having expanded exponentially since then, making the
current figures much higher.

A few states have decided to tackle
the growing issue of soaring electricity demand from cannabis cultivation by
adding extra measures for these businesses.

In Colorado, Boulder County has
devised rules
in which commercial cannabis growers must offset their electricity use using
local renewable energy sources or pay a 2.16 cent charge per kWh, with accrued
fees being put forward to the Energy Impact Offset Fund, which is used to
educate growers and financing research into more sustainable cultivation
equipment such as lighting and ventilation systems.

In 2012, residents in Arcata, California, voted to implement a 45 per cent tax on residential households that spend more than $700 per month on electricity, which is equivalent to the amount of power used by a big chain drug store.

Operating illegally

The tax was put in place to tackle the
growing number of commercial home growers, sometimes operating illegally, using
family homes full of high intensity lights and irrigation systems that raise
energy prices in the area and can often lead to fires.

With the industry not looking to slow
down, companies need to take into consideration the necessity of reducing their
carbon footprint in such an energy-devouring business model.

More efficient lighting may be a small
and easy solution, with LED lighting being an option, as well as the use of
solar power to harvest electricity organically, which would also benefit
business owners in lowering the financial output, thus saving money in the long
term despite high initial costs.

To offset the huge amount of water
consumption, cannabis growing businesses could look to reduce the water used
and wasted by collecting
the condensation that gathers within the dehumidifiers in grow houses, which
could be filtered and recycled back by watering the plants with it.

Moving back to outdoor operations is a
possible solution, with this process being the cheapest and most energy
efficient way to cultivate cannabis. However, most businesses care more for
speed over sustainability, and many states don’t allow for outdoor growing.

While the industry is in its early
stages, many sustainable measures have not been taken due to the lack of clear
standards from regulatory bodies, and businesses haven’t felt the pressure to
do something about their huge energy usage.

 With time, additional rules will likely be put
into place and businesses will be held to higher standards, along with
respective states looking for solutions on how to lower the ever-growing carbon
footprint of the supposedly green industry. 

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