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Gwynne Ann Unruh is a former award winning reporter at the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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At this point policymakers might not be paying much attention to the environmental impacts and energy consumption of the cannabis industry. The environmentally conscious crowd is well represented among cannabis supporters and consumers. Around the United States, many cannabis producers would consider themselves ecologically responsible, as they embrace organic growing practices whenever they can, strive for sustainability and take pride in supplying a natural product that comes from the earth.

Eco-conscious investors are increasingly adding cannabis stocks to their green portfolios. The truth is the cannabis industry has an insatiable energy appetite and indoor cannabis growing facilities have a considerable carbon footprint, as these growing operations are the most energy-intensive agricultural industries in the world. One 2018 paper shows that the industry’s energy demands could jump by 162 percent by 2022. A 2014 Northwest Power and Conservation Council report estimated a grow operation cultivating only four plants would draw as much power as 29 refrigerators.

“The dirty little secret of the marijuana industry is that embedded in each average indoor-grown plant is the energy equivalent of 70 gallons of oil,” wrote Evan Mills, a climate scientist in a recent essay. In some parts of the United States, the rising cannabis industry is responsible for substantial greenhouse gas emissions. Depending on where in the U.S. it’s grown, an ounce of pot grown indoors can produce as much carbon as burning a full tank of gas. Approximately half of the commercial demand for cannabis is being satisfied by indoor grow operations.

Most cannabis-growing businesses operate indoor facilities to optimize yields and product potency by having control over the environmental conditions of plants. Artificial lighting is used during the various stages of cannabis growth, including almost around-the-clock lighting the first several months of a cannabis plant’s life. Growers use indoor operations, as indoor-grown products draw a premium over outdoor-grown products. You can also get much more product out of an indoor grow and don’t have to worry about security as much and someone stealing your product.

The indoor grow house also draws large amounts of electricity for the cooling and heating necessary to keep plants content. Lighting, fans and water pumps are all energy-consuming aspects of indoor pot production. In some places—not so much in New Mexico—dehumidifying the air also requires huge quantities of electricity. As a way of accelerating growth in the plants, producers sometimes pipe in carbon dioxide, which plants use for photosynthesis. In addition to plant cultivation, energy use for a grow facility can include office equipment, security, irrigation systems, packaging equipment and laboratory-rated processing equipment.

Growing cannabis has been under the microscope in several studies. A study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showed indoor cannabis operations were responsible for approximately 1 percent of the United States’ total energy use—and this was at a time before a single state had legalized cannabis and fewer than 20 states had legalized medicinal marijuana.

Some studies show that up to half of the production costs associated with indoor cannabis production come just from the power bill needed to grow plants. On the average a 5,000-square-foot cannabis growing facility requires more than 40,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity each month versus the average U.S. residential utility consumer in 2017 that used less than 900 kilowatt-hours each month. The state of California drafted regulations that will require commercial cannabis companies to obtain at least 42 percent of their electricity from renewable energy, with these standards phased in over time.

After Colorado legalized weed, Denver’s Department of Environmental Health officials found up to 4 percent of the total rising energy demand in the city was coming from cannabis growers. The department created a guide on “Cannabis Environmental Best Management Practices” for energy management and reducing environmental impacts in the economics of the cannabis cultivation business. Estimates are that a wholesale switch to outdoor production in Colorado would reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the tune of 96 percent, cutting the state’s total emissions by 1.3 percent.

The increasing demand for quality cannabis significantly fuels the energy demand of growers. It strains their bottom line as well as the electrical grid. Growers are needing more and more energy to cultivate cannabis just to meet the demand. Indoor cannabis grow houses are responsible for significant emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases, indicating the need for sustainable regulation to control the environmental toll from the industry.

The industry has been developing and expanding very quickly, often without a lot of consideration for the environment. There is little to no regulation on emissions for growing cannabis indoors in several states. Without national regulations to address sustainability in the cannabis industry, state regulators need to develop requirements with sustainability in mind as the industry grows within their state. “Some of the nation’s hard-earned progress towards climate change solutions is on the chopping block as regulators continue to ignore [the cannabis] industry’s mushrooming carbon footprint,” climate scientist Mills said for the Future Cannabis Project in 2016.

The illegal cannabis industry has used solar panels for decades to offset its electric load, so the government wouldn’t be able to pinpoint high utility bills for illegal growing operations. As legislators move forward and tweak regulations in New Mexico, supporting solar and wind technology could make a substantial difference to the way cannabis-growing facilities impact the environment with their energy-hungry cannabis. It’s a no brainer. Harnessing solar and wind energy to power cannabis growing facilities could make a huge dent in the energy needs of cannabis growers and reduce their greenhouse gas footprint.

As New Mexico just legalized cannabis, there’s a lot of hard work to do in the educational needs of growers and legislators on sustainable technology and the support the industry needs to reduce its carbon footprint. State emissions are guaranteed to climb from cannabis growing, and the smell won’t be just the sweet smoke of ganga. Going sustainable would also provide a substantial increase to a grower’s bottom line in New Mexico and create a powerful brand-marketing advantage for any company in the state.

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