Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Greener pot: is there such a thing as energy efficient Cannabis?

Maybe, says Evan Mills, a Staff Scientist & energy analyst at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs. On his own time, he wrote a paper called Energy: Up in Smoke: The Carbon Footprint of Indoor Cannabis Production, and he suggests marijuana's covert life in suburban grow houses could be mitigated. 

It's a fascinating read, because it accomplishes what a great energy analysis can do: tell you something about the way people behave, that's reflected in their consumption cycle, that you either didn't know before, or bother to math out, or possess the capability of mathing out. 

If you've watched the wonderful show Weeds, though, (on your television...using electricity...) it seems obvious: the grow house is an energy hog. A lot of lights to plug in. "Driving the large energy requirements of indoor production facilities are lighting levels matching those found in hospital operating rooms (500-times greater than recommended for reading) and 30 hourly air changes (6-times the rate in high-tech laboratories, and 60-times the rate in a modern home)," Mills writes. "Resulting electricity intensities are 200 watts per square foot, which is on a par with modern datacenters."

His analysis isn't solely about medical marijuana, or about California. But I was fascinated by his numbers here: 

In California, the top-producing state—and one of 17 states to allow cultivation for medical purposes—the practice is responsible for about 3% of all electricity use or 8% of household use. Due to higher electricity prices and cleaner fuels used to make electricity, California incurs 70% of national energy costs but only 20% of national CO2 emissions.

According to the North Coast Journal, Mills says, Humboldt County experienced a 50% rise in per-capita residential electricity use compared to other areas after the legalization of cultivation for medical purposes in California in 1996.

And for you carbon footprint counters: one joint is 2 pounds of carbon, Mills says. (Looking at you, Phish phans.)

Mills' work has a lot of implications for policymakers. His top-level recommendations for minimizing energy consumption in the marijuana growth industry include: 

•Growers selecting better, commercially available equipment.

•Equipment vendors developing even more efficient equipment, and educating their customers.

•Reducing the use of off-grid power generators fired with fossil fuels. The worst case is a gasoline-fueled generator, which results in 140 gallons of fuel burned to produce each plant.

•Applying science to understanding how to achieve necessary environmental conditions in a less energy-intensive manner.

His conclusion isn't simply to legalize it. In fact it's very much like what you often read in a science paper: more research is needed. But it's that very transparency and straightforwardedness that seems most lacking in any discussion about pot. Mills does mention that outdoor growing involves particularly low energy inputs - though the impacts, as to watersheds, are significant when they're not regulated. Environmental groups are targeting data centers and the tech community for their practices now, lobbying them for energy efficiency - Apple and Facebook being two prominent examples. But the diffuse nature of grow houses means they're not really suceptible to such campaigns - not that anyone's trying. 

Mills' summary and his paper (including his problems with how the media has covered it) is at his website, if you want to take a look.