This article discusses the difficulties of reining in the intense energy use of the cannabis industry from the perspective of the most energy efficient state: Massachusetts.
Massachusetts was named the most energy efficient state in the nation by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) for the ninth consecutive year in October 2019 (1). Now the burgeoning cannabis industry, notorious for being an energy waster, poses a serious threat to that status. And the stakes are getting higher every day. As more states legalize cannabis, emissions are virtually guaranteed to climb. One 2018 paper shows that the industry’s energy demands could jump by 162% by 2022 (2). This article discusses the difficulties of reining in the intense energy use of the cannabis industry from the perspective of the most energy efficient state: Massachusetts.
The 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) set economy-wide goals for Massachusetts: 25% reduction of greenhouse gases against 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% reduction by 2050 (3). With much effort, Massachusetts has reduced its electricity use in the range of 3% statewide annually.
Fred Davis, a lighting engineer and energy conservation activist since 1977, wants to make sure cannabis is not a thorn in the side of this effort (4). “There is a major chasm between what indoor cultivation refers to as ‘sustainability efforts’ and what’s actually needed for global sustainability; it’s not close,” said Davis.
He’s right to worry. Cannabis is currently one of the most unsustainable industries in the country; its greenhouse gas emissions are on par with data centers (5). The power-hungry crops rival data centers or server farms in intense use of electricity, according to a peer-reviewed study last year in the journal Energy Policy. Aggregate US emissions are equivalent to those of 3 million cars (6).
The largest portion of these emissions can be traced to high-pressure sodium lighting, which can account for more than half of an indoor grow’s electricity. These are roughly 500 times stronger than a reading light (7). Additionally, heating, dehumidifying, and cooling indoor grow rooms all demand significant energy.
In March 2018, the Massachusetts Department of Energy and Resources (DoER) suggested that grows over 10,000 square feet of canopy not exceed an average of 36 watts per square foot. This standard effectively prohibits the use of any lighting technology other than light emitting diodes (LEDs), which are more energy efficient than other lights.
The Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), a five-member body that regulates the industry in Massachusetts, accepted these guidelines and defined “canopy” as an area that will contain mature plants at any point in time, including all the spaces within the canopy boundaries of the given area (8). In addition, the CCC guidance said that cultivators “shall provide energy and water usage reporting to the Commission in a form determined by the Commission.”
The CCC received no usage data from 2018–2020. This has frustrated energy conservation activists like Davis. “They have gotten by without complying with the minimum requirement," he said. "All you need is a utility bill. It’s super, super easy.”
Sam Milton, Principal of Climate Resources Group, says the initial requirement was easy to let slide (9). “It didn’t have any teeth because cultivators didn’t really know how to demonstrate that [measurement]," explained Milton. "And because there were no documents that were required, it just fell off the radar.”
This is a new industry and regulators in all of these agencies are experiencing a learning curve, like in other legal states. The DoER came to the measurement of 36 watts per square foot based on scientific calculations, but it didn’t really know how grows ran. The CCC was new to electrical engineering and the science of photosynthesis, but it was still expected to translate that language to growers.
“The language came from the DoER was completely foreign to the CCC and I think still is to some extent," said Milton. "They needed to understand exactly what that means and how to apply that to what their license holders are doing. And the DoER wanted to apply this code to this industry without fully appreciating how these facilities operate and what more effective metrics would be.”
Recognizing that the regulations were too vague, in January 2020 the CCC unveiled updated environmental guidelines (10). These required operators to ensure that virtually every facet of their business is in compliance with GWSA targets with a compliance letter that detailed everything from architectural design to transportation and lighting.
The form of energy reporting—Cannabis PowerScore—was also finally determined in July 2020. Resource Innovation Institute (RII) created the PowerScore app as a way to report lighting; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC usage); utility bills; canopy size; and more (11). The licensee will download their PowerScore report as a PDF file and include that document as an attachment to the initial or renewal application.
The definition of canopy, essential to the wattage requirement, was also clarified in July 2020. “Square foot” refers to the square footage of the canopy and canopy is measured using clearly identifiable boundaries of all areas that will contain mature plants at any point in time. Mature plants are greater than 8 inches tall. Canopy doesn’t include aisles and walkways.
Because some operators pushed back against the 36 square foot restriction, the CCC also gave them a second pathway to compliance. If they used fixtures from the partnered Design Light Consortium qualified products list (QPL), which includes only high photon efficacy fixtures, they can ignore the 36 watt restriction (12).
The CCC is using a combination of incentives and punitive measures to ensure they comply. That includes fines or sending an order directing them to come into compliance—all the way down to suspension. The CCC will then be able to use that data to track businesses’ successes and identify ways to improve.
Engineer and cultivator Mike Zartarian sympathizes with both indoor cultivators and sun-grown cannabis advocates. In a recent webinar for RII, he said, “In Massachusetts specifically, it’s an onerous and expensive sector. By the time you’ve gotten in, you’re in huge debt and you’ve taken on investors, and they’re interested in seeing a return on their investment.”
It doesn’t help that the cannabis margins are high in Massachusetts. The wholesale price of cannabis is currently $3500 per pound and the production cost of a pound is about $1000. That decent profit makes energy efficiency less urgent. When the price of cannabis drops, cultivators start to cut expenses such as energy. “Oregon is one of those places," said Zartarian. "You have to be extremely energy efficient in Oregon to survive because their price per pound is much, much lower . . . like $1000 to $1500.”
There are certainly ways to make indoor growing more efficient. The DoER funded RII to create a series of educational workshops (13), tutorials, Best Practices Guides on LED Lighting and HVAC for Cannabis Cultivation (14), and help with customized energy plans. The tutorials explain how to report their energy and water usage on PowerScore and the guides encompass everything from a breakdown of various lighting options to case studies of cultivators and in-depth explanations of water flow systems.
Many operators see that sustainability is something they have to address because of the economics as well as the optics of it. Growing indoors often results in huge utility bills that cut into a cultivator’s profits, and make the future of their business less tenable (15).
Renewable power in Massachusetts is still mostly theoretical. There are wind turbine projects, but they aren’t completed yet. Even if there was enough renewable power, indoor cultivation is so energy intensive that, in the case of solar, it would require an array of photovoltaic (solar) electricity panels that is in the range of 17–20 times the square footage under cultivation. “In other words, one would need solar acreage about 20 times the size of a cultivation building," said Davis. "That’s a lot of property.”
Cultivators do have another option: growing outdoors. The difference between indoor operation and a sun-grown operation is massive. In fact, Smith explained that it can be “up to 500 times” different. But outdoor grows are extremely rare on the East Coast; while roughly 40% of California cannabis is grown outside (16), the East Coast didn’t get its first outdoor grow until last year (17), outside of Baltimore, Maryland. Massachusetts has approved only three outdoor grows versus 34 indoor grows (18).
The CCC gives minor breaks to outdoor cultivators. Their license fees are slightly lower. But different government agencies have not effectively aligned to provide a true path to outdoor cultivation.
The biggest hurdle is at the local level. Massachusetts is a home rule state and local governments have final say. Due to worries about security, and perhaps underlying stigma, grow facilities are zoned as industrial, not agricultural, which forces them inside. “Local governments are happy to get tax revenue from the industry, but keep it on the downlow and shove these guys somewhere out of the public view,” said Milton.
Outdoor cannabis advocates like Sanford Lewis, believe the CCC could do far more to foster outdoor cannabis (19). For instance, outdoor growers have costly security requirements because local governments believe cannabis will attract thieves. Lewis believes the CCC should step in and educate local government and encourage them to support sustainable cannabis agriculture. Lewis provided testimony representing the Northeast Sustainable Cannabis Project in front of the CCC on August 15, 2019, where he said: “The CCC should use the bully pulpit and oversight process to encourage municipalities to welcome outdoor as well as greenhouse cultivation.”
Municipal governments and consumers may not be fully aware of the environmental ramifications of indoor growing. That’s where education comes in.
Consumers increasingly like to buy local, environmentally friendly products and the same could be true for cannabis. Growers on the West Coast are banking on that local cache. There’s a movement to create a label around sustainably grown products in Oregon and Washington with a sun-grown label. And Gavin Newsom recently approved an appellation program in California (20).
Massachusetts could come up with its own certification process. That would also educate consumers on the large carbon footprint left by indoor growing and the benefits of sun-grown products. Communication and education may prove to be most crucial to the success of cannabis sustainability.
About the Author
CHRISTINE GIRAUD, a freelance writer in Boston, has been writing about cannabis for publications and companies such as The Boston Globe, Leafly, Cannasure, Overture Global Magazine, Dig Boston, Civilized, Her(b) Life, and Foottraffik. Direct correspondence to:
How to Cite this Article
C. Giraud, Cannabis Science and Technology 3(8), 42-45 (2020).