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