With Massive Power Problems, California Pushing Marijuana Production Indoors

Photo by Nico Escondido

Americans have a short memory. The span of Californians’ collective consciousness may be even shorter.

California just spent the better part of a decade mired in the worst drought in recorded history, and possibly the worst dry spell ever. Now, after a month of heavy rainfall, a once-in-a-century event, California Republicans are talking about making water storage projectsbuilding dams to create reservoirs, which just a few months ago were empty—a key priority for the future.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that local elected officials in California appear to have forgotten the state’s ongoing energy crisis. While not nearly as bad as the mass blackouts in 2000 and 2001 caused by the creative accountants at Enron, energy shortages last summer—caused by the massive gas leak that went uncapped for months—forced state utilities to announce more rolling blackouts and to ask customers to go easy on the air conditioning during heat waves.

Because, despite overwhelming evidence that giant indoor grow houses are massive power sucks, elected officials are driving the state’s marijuana production indoors just as commercial-scale cultivation is about to begin. At the same time when California is on notice to meet ambitious green-energy goals, across the state, counties and cities are discouraging solar-powered cannabis.

There are a few arguments for growing marijuana indoors. You can control everything, from light cycles to humidity to the amount of CO2 in the air. You can have multiple harvests going on at once. Consumers seem to prefer indoor (or at least they think they do). But all this comes at a cost.

As much as one percent of the country’s entire power load is being used by indoor cannabis farms. That might not sound significant, but it is. Growing 6.5 pounds of indoor cannabis requires energy sources that emit almost 13.5 metric tons of CO2.  

In California, where most electricity comes from burning natural gas, indoor cannabis cultivation is not green. As much as three percent of all the state’s energy production went towards indoor marijuana cultivation—and that was in 2012, before legalization and before prisons and tire plants were being converted into massive cannabis cultivation facilities. Now, the figure could be even larger. The state’s energy officials at the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) simply have no idea, as they admitted on Tuesday.

In rapidly growing Denver, as much as 40 percent of the new demand for energy since 2012 is from indoor marijuana cultivation facilities. In California, where large-scale indoor cannabis production has been a thing for years and will soon become a much bigger thing, there is no “deep data” on the water and power such an industry requires, according to Michael Picker, the PUC’s president.

But since the state is on notice to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030—right when the marketplace for marijuana is pegged to balloon to many billions of dollars—the PUC may require special electricity rates for marijuana production.

One obvious solution would be to grow marijuana using the most sustainable source of all—the sun.

Outdoor cannabis suffers from a less-than-stellar reputation among some consumers, but when cultivated in a greenhouse, marijuana competes with the best indoor for quality, and growers enjoy many of the same advantages as growing indoors—controlling climate, multiple harvests, etc.—without a massive energy bill.

But nothing is simple or obvious in California.

One tenet of legalization was that local governments would have broad authority to regulate cannabis cultivation and sales. And across the state, cities and counties are choosing to severely restrict outdoor marijuana grows or ban them outright—including in rural areas where outdoor cannabis cultivation is already widespread.

If this is allowed to persist, and the demand for California cannabis grows as expected, the result is obvious.

“If we’re not allowed to (grow outdoors), indoor is the only option,” said Nick Caston, vice president for public affairs with CannaCraft, in comments to the PUC. Canncraft is a major producer of cannabis products based in Sonoma County, which also recently passed a ban on outdoor growing.

“We need to not let local municipalities pass land-use ordinances without taking energy issues into account,” Caston said, according to the Chronicle.

That would be a start. It would also require changing Prop. 64’s much-vaunted provisions on local control. It would also require Californians to acknowledge the recent past and think about the future—something 40 million people living in the forever now have always struggled to do.

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