"Their Weed Habit Costs a Fukushima's-Worth of Power Every Year"

A few years ago several Humboldt Co. folk met and decided to change the world (yah, what’s new about that, you ask–well, this time they appear to be succeeding).  A few people gathered in a small room and worried about how the cannabis culture had been co-opted by non-environmentally grown indoor pot.  They determined to get the message out about the beauty and soundness of growing marijuana organically outdoors in the sun.  This new movement has been gaining momentum.  The newest media attention coming to Humboldt is touting this “new” sensibility.  David Downs of the East Bay Express has done a lovely piece (okay, he missed a few small things but hey, its hard to get Humboldt in a few short visits) that features Tea House Collective (He interviewed me, too). I particularly enjoyed his discussion of the problems of indoor grows. He interviewed Evan Mills, an energy analyst who works for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at UC Berkeley.

Working independently this spring, the Ph.D revealed some startling statistics about indoor cannabis and the huge amounts of electricity it sucks up. Indoor pot cultivation generates about $5 billion in electricity bills per year in the United States, he estimated, and most of that energy is wasted because growing indoors is 75 percent inefficient.

Mills calculated the carbon footprint of indoor pot and published it in an incendiary independent paper titled Energy Up In Smoke: The Carbon Footprint of Indoor Cannabis Production. A member of the International Panel on Climate Change, Mills cares about energy efficiency. He’s worked on everything from data centers to homes, to kerosene used for lighting in the developing world.

“I began noticing the hydroponic and indoor gardening stores popping up all over the place and discovered that the shelves were more densely packed with fans, lights, and dehumidifiers than soils and fertilizers,” he wrote in an e-mail. “As a long-time energy analyst, I naturally began doing the math on how much energy was being used.”

According to federal drug statistics, the annual production of cannabis nationwide is an estimated 17,000 metric tons — with one-third of it being grown indoors. So Mills then modeled what an “average” ten-by-ten foot indoor growing module would produce (.7 kilograms per cycle) and need in terms of power (2,698 kilowatt-hours per cycle). At an average of 12 cents per kilowatt-hour in Northern California, growing four indoor plants to harvest costs about $323 in electricity approximately every ninety days.

California’s indoor marijuana crop alone would fill 600,000 such grow modules — 1.7 million for the nation, Mills estimated. With our current power supply mix, one Medi-Cone joint equals about two pounds of CO2 emissions. It’s like running a 100-watt light bulb for seventeen hours.

The April paper exploded online, with dozens of blogs and newspapers, including The New York Times, mentioning Mills and the study. Mills says that some of the data he published has been misconstrued. “The media has really missed the story and misrepresented the analysis in many cases,” he said. “Nine out of ten reports focused on who to blame rather than what to do about it. The blame often was placed on producers rather than consumers, which is always a dubious thing to do.”

Compared to other energy uses, indoor pot farming isn’t that bad, indoor cannabis defenders argue. Indoor pot only uses one-sixth as much electricity as household refrigerators, they contend.

But Mills responds: “I don’t have sympathy for cannabis advocates who say that the energy use is too small to worry about — it’s not.”

8% of California’s usage sounds pretty significant to me. And, according to the Schatz Energy Research Center, Humboldt Co. residents use 25% more electricity than the average Californian because of indoor grows.  This kind of data shocked those early Humboldt residents into action.  Today the action is paying off in increased media attention to the problem. Hopefully, tomorrow’s cannabis consumers will listen and move towards a more sustainable future.

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Photo of SoHum’s Charlie Custer from the East Bay Express

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16 comments

  • Being outdoors is the way to go. The reasons are apparent.
    This article gets to the root of these issues.
    Outstanding article… and a great picture of Charlie smiling.
    Thanks.

  • I agree that outdoor growing, when done right, is FAR less ecologically damaging than indoor growing. Unfortunately, the reality is that there are plenty of outdoor growers doing significant ecological damage as well.

    Most notably, there is the withdrawl of large amounts of water from our springs, creeks and rivers during the dry season. There are also potential problems with fertilizer and pesticide runoff. And then there is all the diesel fuel to run those ridiculously oversized trucks that many of the most ostentatious growers are so fond of, there’s the siltation of creeks and rivers due to poorly constructed, insufficiently graveled and poorly-maintained dirt roads, and due to some people’s need to drive way too fast on these roads, kicking up enormous dust clouds as they go.

    But if people would be willing to put just a little bit of their profits back into winter-water-storage tanks, would take care in the landscaping of their gardens and use of fertilizers, would avoid using harmful pesticides, would follow better road contruction and road maintenance practices, would drive more fuel-efficient vehicles, and SLOW DOWN on those gravel-and-dirt roads, the outdoor growing scene could be a whole lot more ecologically sustainable than it is at present.

    In my opinion the most urgent of these items is the need to store winter water for use during the dry season, rather than continuing to suck so much water from the springs, rivers and creeks at a time of year when there is little water to spare.

  • Being grown outdoor is no guarantee of having a small footprint, for sure. There are a lot more factors. Tea House Collective’s idea for salmon safe sensimilla where very little water is drawn from creeks during the critical months is an example though of very good practices.

  • Thanks, Kym (and skippy)! We just got home from family duties to this most embarrassing photo illustrating a fine article. I wish David could have fit in our larger cultural context of forest protection, river restoration, hippie certification, civil liberties etc, but we’ll save that for his follow-up. You gave him a great miniature of the big picture on indoor/outdoor. Now we’ll see who cares.

    • I wish there had been more on THC’s eco practices, too. But it was a fine intro to the subject for your average reader. (I loved it and your photo.)

  • Charley,

    One argument that I keep seeing is that outdoor bud is not suitable for medical patients because of mold, mildew, pests, and (for some reason they always include this), horror of horrors “random bird poop.”

    I would be interested to hear whether you hear this argument as well, from patients and/or from dispensaries.

    And whether you do hear that much or not, I’d be interested in hearing your response to that claim.

    Here’s a good example of someone making that claim:

    http://lostcoastoutpost.com/2011/jul/14/hope-local-weed-industry/

    The claim is made at the beginning of the first comment in that thread, by “Mark Sailors.”

    • Tra, you did an excellent job responding to the claim that outdoor is not suitable for medical patients. I think what Mr. Sailors says is an example of people having not thought about the reality of indoor vs outdoor. The first thing I ask of someone who offers the argument that outdoor is somehow dirtier is “have you been in both?” Because many (though not all) indoors are dusted with chemicals in an attempt to salvage a plant grown indoors that evolved under the sun. Spider mites flourish in the moist conditions, powdery mildew is rampant–outdoor gardens rarely have these problems and thus rarely resort to chemicals except by inexperienced growers. The second question I ask is would you recommend a sick person eat food grown locally and organically or would you recommend that a sick person eat industrial food. A farmer’s market tomato is so obviously superior in taste, vitamins and health to its supermarket counterpart that I think most people understand that the same is true of outdoor organic cannabis. The idea that cannabis needs to be hermetically sealed to protect the consumer is a fallacy that we should be able to extrapolate from our experience with local farmers and industrial agriculture. Like you said in your response on LoCo, there has not been a single case of outdoor cannabis causing someone’s death. Mold, which flourishes in indoor as well as outdoor is certainly a concern as is pesticide use but in my experience, outdoor is less likely to contain problems for the end consumer. In the case of terribly ill patients, I would recommend they get to know their farmer. Trust is essential to make sure their medicine is truly organic and mold free. Failing that, buy organic outdoor as being most likely to be safe.

      • In general, immunocompromised patients do not use a whole slew of things. Salsa, fermented tea, some cheeses, raw grains, pastry shop stuff, peaches, strawberries, anything that can get easily infected.

        This can be mostly solved with UV lights and letting cut branches hang in the sun though.

  • bongandablintz?

    Phase one, draft Marijuana Land Use ordinance for Humboldt County deals with indoor growing and dispensaries. The county and the marijuana “experts” writing the ordinance claim that there is absolutely NO ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT if everyone in the county has an indoor scene. Not to mention 1800 square feet of indoor grows for dispensaries, but don’t talk about that, they don’t.
    NO greenhouse gasses, no run off from used soil dumped outside to leach nutrients into the river. No CEQA required if you smoke enough weed.

  • tra, I’m sorry, I’ve been gone a lot. Yes, I do hear that canard about natural cannabis being unsanitary. It’s very disturbing. It makes me think about all the natural breast milk I slugged as a baby, which was not even Pasteurized–what could be in that stuff? It seems like nature is only for the poor, and the rich. Um, not.

    Even having to argue about this is a measure of madness. I liked how you and Tyce wrote about it at Hank’s Outpost, and you too, Kym. There are so many things to say against this stuff. The first for me is that any immuno-compromised patient shouldn’t be smoking anything anyway.

    No, I’ve never heard a patient, except one on a ventilator, worry about artificial ‘cleanliness,’ though a more accurate word for what pharmaceutical-grade strives for is sterility. That’s antithetical to life, the very ideal weirds me out–but I’d be a card-carrying dirty hippie-sympathizer if they had cards. It’s the slurs and stigmas that get under my skin, but as is so often the case, they’re just marketing.

  • Very simple:

    A disinterested third party could collect ten (or more) random samples from ten (or more) random outdoor gardens (please include the biggun’s of SoHum that are preaching the superiority of their “product”) as well as an equal number of randomly collected samples from indoor gardens to analyze.

    …it would be interesting to see who would be willing to bet the farm, so to speak, before a real, unbiased study like this is done! CASE CLOSED until then!

    …and I’m all about outdoor, btw. I just think “cannabiz” is full of shit and am flabbergasted at the degree to which the shit is stockpiling. Marijuana is still illegal, folks….people’s lives are wasting away in prison because of it. You’re all on the same team.

    P.S. your internet habit uses a fuk-u-shima’s worth of power every SECOND. But that’s different, right? Riiiiight.

    • Solar power here (backed with propane gen of course)…And there is no alternate path to the internet but using electricity. Plants have been growing for centuries without. Thus, growing indoor is using power that could be better spent on thousands of us watching youtubes of cats plinking on the piano. Or alternately providing refrigeration so that food doesn’t spoil or providing electricity for hospitals. (I’m not about forcing people to grow outdoors. I’m about asking people to question their choice and make the best one possible for their situation. That’s why people ask is Richardson Grove the right place to spend money or is a hummer the right vehicle for your situation. It’s not about being “full of shit.” It’s about having looked at the facts, interpreted them, and then offering them to others in hopes of creating a better world.)

      I don’t have any random sample studies to point to but anecdotally, I know that one lab tester told me that the buds that contained both the highest CBD and highest THC that he had ever tested were outdoor. He said it was technique and genetics not indoor or outdoor.

      • How politely put, as usual…but I’m far more about what’s being said over how it’s said. The message over the means. Today’s “positive” movement is creating this massive mental grey zone among the internet community (read: ADDICTS) where nothing is right or wrong, and business as usual is winning. “Positivity” is becoming this brain numbing mass on the internet…encouraging people to feel good about buying Clorox out of a green bottle rather than a red one. You know in your mind what arguments are “full of shit” regardless of how politely you think you’re communicating positive interpretation.

        …that said, your internet addiction contributes to the most resource consuming enterprise the planet has ever seen. It’s worse than TV in both environmental impacts and societal conditioning. And people are wasting away in prison because of marijuana. Something among us is full of shit…not you…but I’m not going to pretend to be nice about it.

  • I don’t mean to come across as angry as I probably do, kym. My shoes aren’t where you might think. (I go barefoot, and I’m very affable) When I started reading your blog…early last year or something, I got a very different impression of who you were and what you stood for…where you were coming from about the same issues that are closest to my heart related to everybody’s world. Reading your position on Richardson Grove completely blew me away. If you wanna talk about arguments that are “full of shit”…the whole premise of that “improvement” project…unecessary road construction through one of the last remaining old growth groves on the planet…insults your intelligence as well as everybody elses. It’s very disturbing to read somebody who presents themself as you do arguing in favor of unecessary road construction. Then there’s marijuana….”indoor” vs. “outdoor”….farmers harvesting 100+ lbs at a time complaining about prices in a world where people living in the city are thrown in jail for trying to grow their own in a closet…or make a few bucks the same way. Etc. etc. etc…I won’t beat the proverbial horse anymore on your site, although I know you’ll continue to argue in favor of compromising the sancity of Humboldt’s most precious, delicate and rare environments that is Richardson Grove, as well as bolster the values of marijuana wine snobbery over our basic rights of existence regarding nature’s gifts.

    I’m slowly closing this chapter of my own life…the internet one that is…again. I’ve been tuned in off and on since it’s inception, and it’s only getting worse. I’ll no doubt tune in down the road but it’s just not healthy…it’s a brainwashing box that you gotta step away from regularly to see just how bad it is. Nobody’s positive spin can change the material reality being created by others that surrounds us, and is very really encroaching on us. Some issues need to be addressed matter of factly, and anger is very legitimate. You’ve talked about the frustration of people writing off your arguments…”positive relations” or whatever you want to call them…because of this that or another…well, as with all things that works both ways. People get angry for a reason…don’t write em off because of it. Your comment on another blog about believing corporate smile-dom over environmentalists blew me away too. I doubt it will ever happen, but if we ever meet I promise I’ll introduce myself. You’ve interviewed a couple people I know in the past for articles, so the chance is there. There’s no substitute for person to person communication. The internet, however, is full of shit.

    peace, etc.

  • Random, I can understand your worries about the small indoor grower. And honestly, I’m not too worried about the amount of electrical consumption of someone who is just growing for themselves. Sure it would be environmentally better if they didn’t and it would be better if I rode a horse and quite using my dryer. I’m also not trying to Force people to quit growing indoor–even the biggest ones. I’m just trying to persuade them to think about the consequences and I’m trying to persuade the consumers to do the same.

    It is possible in regards to Richardson Grove that I am just marching lockstep with the Caltrans agenda because my husband gets his paycheck from them.There are quite a few people in Humboldt that consider themselves environmentalists, that don’t get a Caltrans paycheck and do support the project.You do know that Save the Redwoods is not against this project? It is possible for good people to look at the same set of facts and come to different conclusions. I don’t think you are bad because you think differently than me on this. I enjoy your comments (okay, most of the time. Sometimes not so much;>)

    In “real life” a lot of my friends are anti the Richardson Grove project and pro indoor grows. My opinion causes them pain and theirs causes me pain. But we don’t stop being friends. (We do try not to rant about the idiocy of each other’s opinions though.) I don’t like disagreeing with people I respect but I’m slowly learning the value of “speaking my truth.” How else can my mind be changed if people don’t know how I really feel? I used to be pro indoor grows for instance. For years, some people I respected spoke of the problems. Eventually, I began to see where they were right and I was wrong. It took me about ten years to come to that conclusion.

    This blog is supposed to be about discussion –not about me talking to people who only agree with me. I hope that you don’t take too long a vacation from the internet. This blog will be poorer without your comments. Please do introduce yourself to me. Until then I’ll be looking for someone barefoot and affable…

    • Since I started growing indoors I’ve realized something: growing indoors is NOT green. Soil grows, IMHO, are the lesser of the 2 evils [soil vs hydroponic] for these reasons:
      1. hydro uses hundreds if not thousands of gallons of fert/water mix per grow cycle that must be dumped out, then remade, then dumped out, etc. on a weekly basis. Where does this fert/water mix go? In many cases, it makes its way to storm drains, then to rivers, and the ocean. Adding so much phosphorus to our water system leads to algae blooms and dead zones. Big industry is the main culprit but we’re helping them.
      2. Both hydro and soil grows use electricity in large amounts, adding to the demand for additional power plants, usually met by opening new coal power plants. The US is the Saudi Arabia of coal.

      In areas of colder climes, large cities and grows where people simply don’t have access to a sunny spot in their yard, indoor is their only option.

      So what can we do?
      Dump fert/water mixes on land where plants can utilize the nutes, and far from run-off areas that lead to streams, rivers or storm drains.
      Always use organic ferts. Synthetic ferts are made from fossil fuel.
      If possible, when soil growing, use your summer months to brighten up your Mother plants, do your 4 weeks of 18/6 using mother sun, and transition from clone to start outside in those long warm summer days, which means turning off a few indoor lights, for a few months… depending on the geographic locale.

      Above all though, we shouldn’t feel guilty, we’re growing medicine. We simply need to stand back and look at how we do that.

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