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Grass could be greener with budding new industry for energy efficiency

The relaxation of laws around marijuana in the United States has created a new target market for the energy efficiency industry, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

The huge growth in the cannabis industry has led to highly energy intensive indoor cannabis cultivation facilities, which use on average 10 times the energy of an office on a square metre basis, according to ACEEE buildings program director Jennifer Thorne Amann.

While there are currently no comprehensive statistics available on the energy use of marijuana, she said looking at states with legal commercial cultivation facilities provided some startling statistics.

The not-for-profit Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP) found that in Colorado, where recreational marijuana use is legal, the 1300 registered cannabis cultivators were using 300 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity a year – about 0.6 per cent of the state’s total electricity use.

Energy use can account for a massive 20-50 per cent of total operating costs for cannabis growing facilities. Most of the energy needed is for HVAC (51 per cent), with 38 per cent on lighting. 

According to SWEEP the nature of the industry has meant that energy efficiency hasn’t been prioritised.

“When marijuana is first legalised in a state, new entrepreneurs tend to rush into the market,” its report into energy efficiency best practice in the industry found.

“Rather than taking the time to carefully plan a grow operation to use energy efficiently, most new operations (especially the smallerand medium-size ones) start out by leasing empty warehouse space and setting up the equipment using a ‘quick and dirty’ approach – that is, by using simple, trusted technologies with low-initial equipment cost.” 

There is thus a large and growing opportunity for energy efficiency businesses to get involved to cut some of these enormous energy costs, improving sustainability and competitiveness. The market promises to get even bigger, too.

By mid-2018 there will be 29 states where commercial cannabis cultivation for medical purposes is legal, while eight states have legalised the cultivation of cannabis for recreational use. 

“As the market develops in states like California, where recreational sales began in January, and Massachusetts, which follows suit in July, and as additional medical and recreational markets emerge around the country, energy efficiency can help reduce the energy use and pollution associated with cannabis cultivation, processing and distribution facilities,” Ms Amann said.

SWEEP says target areas include LED lighting upgrades for vegetative rooms and high efficiency high-pressure sodium (HPS) fixtures or hybrid LED/HPS fixtures for flower rooms; and high-efficiency split ductless air conditioning units for small growers and chilled water systems for large growers. 

Together these measures could lead to energy savings of up to 30-35 per cent, it says.

ACEEE meanwhile is embarking on its own research to help the industry reduce its energy intensity, and, like us, can’t resist a pun.

“We hope our work will plant the seed for greater engagement of energy efficiency professionals in reducing the cannabis industry’s energy use,” Ms Amann said.

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