Growing weed from coal

Legalization of recreational marijuana and the resulting boom in both commercial and hobby growing of the plant is putting Colorado power providers in a unique position: trying to reduce greenhouse gas while encouraging the growing of greenhouse grass. Colorado’s cold climate, poor soils and a need for secured growing locations are driving cannabis growers indoors. Energy for artificial lighting and climate control in commercial greenhouses and home basements needs to come from the existing electrical grid. This additional demand has utility companies looking to renewable sources of energy as well as figuring out how to meet the unique power needs of a suddenly-legal enterprise that had been flourishing illegally for years. Illegal grow operations in other states use a large amount of electricity, according to a study by Evan Mills, an energy analyst with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Mills determined that between 1 and 3 percent of electrical use in the country was spent growing marijuana indoors. “Energy represents between 20 [and] 50 percent of the value of cannabis, depending on local energy prices,” Mills wrote. The study showed that once medical marijuana was legalized in California, the share of energy used for marijuana grew to 9 percent of total household use. Colorado utilities say they expect that number to be lower in Colorado because of their efforts to encourage energy efficiency among commercial and hobby growers. Colorado Springs Utilities spokesperson Amy Trinidad told The Cannabist that the utility doesn’t track energy use by industry. “We don’t monitor customer-specific energy uses, so there’s no way for us to tell if energy is being used more or less for marijuana,” Trinidad said. Gabriel Romero, spokesperson for Xcel Energy, agreed that utilities don’t usually break down customer types by industry. “You get classified as a business customer or residential depending on usage or zoning,” Romero said. “Growing facilities use more electricity than a standard warehouse, but not any more than manufacturing or telecom.” Cannabis’s carbon footprint is impacted by how efficient the grow operation is as well as how electricity is produced by the utility. Xcel derives 58 percent of its power from coal, 22 percent from natural gas, 16 percent from wind and 4 percent from other sources, Romero said. Colorado Springs Utilities uses 40 percent coal and 49 percent natural gas, with the rest from renewable sources, Trinidad said. Both utilities agreed that coal-fired supply is on the decline in Colorado. “We expect to be at 20 percent wind within a year,” Romero said. Xcel’s new wind farms on the eastern plains will help meet renewable goals. The changing face of commercial grow operations since legalization helps utilities keep workers safe and the lights on for neighboring customers. “These are legitimate businessmen who are looking to do things right, save money on expenses and turn a more robust profit,” Romero said. “We’ve been giving numerous rebates to help incentivize growers to use energy efficient lighting and keep usage down as much as possible.” “Before legalization, when we saw increases in bills or burdens on our equipment, we had a legal issue to deal with,” said Darryl Edwards, member services manager for Mountain View Electric Association, which serves the rural areas east of Denver and Colorado Springs. “Luckily, that’s all behind us now. People are now being upfront about what they’re doing and helping us size the service appropriately.” Xcel energy requires industry customers to pay for necessary equipment upgrades. “We don’t want to discriminate among industries,” Romero said. “We recognize them as large users of electricity, and don’t want to single them out for what they’re doing. If it’s legal, then that’s all we know. We just make sure additional costs don’t get passed on to other customers.” Mountain View will provide upgraded equipment free of charge if there is no change to voltage requirements, Edwards said. “It’s unique, but that’s been our policy for 70 years, being a rural service looking to increase electrical access in the communities,” Edwards said. “When that policy was put in place, we certainly weren’t thinking marijuana. But the additional costs will be covered by the additional electrical service they’ll be buying.” Colorado’s utilities are among the first in the nation to deal with the issues of legalized marijuana grow operations’ demands on the grid. Changes in energy production, efficiencies in grow light technology and the partnership between growers and utilities will help reduce emissions, but there will be “growing” pains. “We have several people exclusively working the marijuana industry’s issues,” Romero said. “But we’re really proud of this attempt to figure this out for the grow industry and all our customers.”