Marijuana growers are seeing the (LED) light on energy efficiency

Commercial growers in Washington state are cutting their power bills in half with LEDs — and earning huge utility rebates for installation

When Juddy and Danielle Rosellison built their marijuana grow operation in 2014, using LED lighting wasn't as widely accepted as it is today. And that's saying something, because it's still not widely accepted.

Despite some uncertainty, but with an eye towards their own personal values and a business' bottom line, the husband and wife team applied for a new construction rebate with Puget Sound Energy. That helped cut the cost of installing more efficient lighting, and along with a license from the state's Liquor Control Board the pair opened Trail Blazin' Productions in Bellingham, Wa.

"Instead of wasting money on high pressure sodium lighting, we just went straight to LED," said Juddy Rosellison. 

It's an investment that pays multiple dividends: Energy use is only about 7% of the price of Trail Blazin's marijuana price, said Danielle Rosellison — roughly half that of growers who use traditional lighting. It also helps lower their cooling bills, a necessity due to the heat put out by traditional sodium lights. 

Maybe using traditional lighting wasn't so big of a deal when growing pot meant a closet in someone's basement, or outdoors along the edge of a cornfield. But marijuana has turned a corner towards legalization, and the new trend involves gameshow-sized utility rebate checks, craft strains, knock-on efficiency impacts and power bills that can exceed $1 million annually.

Dozens of states now have some form of legalized or medical marijuana program, but the actual count may not matter anymore. The tide on legalization has largely turned, epitomized by last month's ballot initiative in California.

The fifth-largest economy in the world, California has now legalized cannabis for personal use and is gearing up for retail sales. The state's fuel efficiency standards and chemical regulations have a tendency to be replicated nationally, and with about half the country heading towards legalization already it's hard to image the trend doesn't continue.

In the long-term, most marijuana may wind up grown outdoors. It is, after all, a plant. Commercial growers would like to see it regulated uniformly across the country, more akin to farming standards than production of a drug. But in the near-term, indoor cultivation is driving the expanding market. And with that expansion comes growing energy demand that utilities must meet.

Trail Blazin' markets its marijuana as sustainably grown on its website, getting more mileage out of its LED investment.
 

How much energy?

It's difficult to calculate how much energy the cannabis industry may use, as the product has spent much of recent decades in the shadow of a Schedule 1 classification from the federal government. And that prohibition causes headaches for utilities, particularly in the Pacific Northwest where dealing with the federally-owned Bonneville Power Administration can complicate efficiency funding.

About five years ago, a study by a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researcher pegged marijuana power consumption at 1% of national electricity use, or $6 billion annually. Two years ago, a report by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council estimated marijuana operations could grow Washington electricity demand between 60 MW and 160 MW over the next 20 years. Regional demand, including producers in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington, could reach almost 250 MW by 2035.

Another common figure: growing four plants draws about as much power as 29 refrigerators.

Utilities facing stagnant load growth have been searching for new demand — take, for instance, the growing interest in electric vehicles and building charging infrastructure. There are quiet rumblings within the marijuana industry that restrictions on outdoor growing are quietly supported by utilities. Whether or not that's true, utilities have been slow to get in on the efficiency game when it comes to producers.

“Utilities don’t really do outreach at all, they’ve certainly never contacted us," said Kevin Oliver, a commercial grower in Spokane County, Wash. He is also on the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

But Oliver gets his power from Inland Power, which has a long-term contract with Bonneville Power Administration. While some utilities that deal with BPA are self-funding efficiency outreach, others don't have those funds.

Marijuana growers range greatly in size, but the larger facilities can approach 100,000 square feet — the size of a big box retailer, for instance. “Some of these operations, the infrastructure is $2 million to $3 million before they turn the lights on,” said Oliver.

And once those lights do come on? Oliver says most growers are still using conventional high-intensity 1,000-watt bulbs that each cost about $50 a month to run. Large commercial operations can have power bills that run $50,000 to $100,000 per month.

“LED’s are coming on strong in the market right now, there’s a lot of growth,” said Oliver. “They don’t draw near the same energy and for indoor growers probably offers the most promise for energy savings.”

Oliver estimates a single high-intensity bulb can produce 200 to 300 grams of marijuana per year, making for about $600 in energy costs. A consumer might pay $10 to $15 per gram for indoor pot, making energy costs anywhere from 13% to 30% of the product.

Why not outdoors?

While the energy cost of growing outdoor marijuana is close to zero, there are a host of reasons commercial producers are still indoors. Some are by choice, and others are not.

"In some instances, local zoning laws do not permit commercial or even personal grows to take place outdoors," said NORML Deputy Director Pail Armentano. "Commercial growers may also have concerns with regard to potential theft, and their focus on heightened security may result in the move to indoors."

Oliver grows primarily outdoors in Spokane County, which is home to about 20% of Washington’s production. There are more than 100 growers in the county, and the local commission recently limited new permits to indoor-only.

“So there are no more permits unless they’re indoor,” said Oliver. But “it’s kind of a no-brainer question. It’s a plant and it grows outdoors. ... We’re a farm. We grow plants in the ground.”

In Washington state, it’s actually close to 50-50 for indoor and outdoor licenses, Oliver said. A lot of growers in eastern Washington are outdoor growers; west of the Cascades, where more rain falls, moisture causes mold and growers prefer to grow inside.

There are arguments that indoor marijuana is simply better, in part due to the greater control afforded producers. But according to Oliver, “if you have good genetics and you let them grow under the sun, it’s hard to tell the difference between good outdoor pot and good indoor. And the environmental impact of growing outdoors can be so much less.”

Ultimately, Oliver said he expects outdoor-grown pesticide-free marijuana will be the future of the industry, as more products are made into concentrates. But for now, the growth is indoors. And “while the technology has advanced, most growers aren’t convinced LED lights will provide the same production value as high intensity bulbs.”

Hurdles to higher efficiency

Kathleen Sullivan, president of ForeverGreen Illumination, sells LED grow lights to commercial marijuana operations and operates as a go-between with the utility to bring back rebates. She said that while the lights may not have a great reputation, the technology has advanced.

"They had a black eye when they first came out," Sullivan said. "They really didn't work." Even now, finding the right light can be difficult — and they are not cheap, running up to $1,000 to replace a 1,000-watt traditional bulb.

"One of our key business models is doing utility rebates," Sullivan said. "I work with utilities all over the West Coast. ... a lot of utilities don't have programs yet for growers, and we've been trying to connect them."

Utility rebates can vary, she said, citing amounts from $0.08/kWh saved to $0.25/kWh saved. She praised Puget Sound Energy's rebate program, and Avista in eastern Washington as well. 

"As growing is becoming legalized and as utilities are starting to see the intense energy use, they're really trying to get on board," said Sullivan. "Our energy is not infinite, and these grows are using so much of it in a concentrated space."

Both utilities said via email that they support energy efficiency rebates, but do not make special distinctions for marijuana grow operations.

In addition to hurdles in separating utility-funded marijuana efficiency programs and federal funding, Sullivan said the industry also needs to address how lights for horticulture are rated for efficiency.

"Grow lights can't be on EnergySTAR lists because they're not measured in lumens," she said. Utilities have struggled to identify the best technologies, and have created their own lists of products that work.

"That was the hardest thing for the utilities, to figure out how to qualify these lights."

About that giant rebate 

Juddy and Danielle Rosellison got their first rebate in June of last year, a giant-sized check from Puget Sound Energy for more than $150,000. On the "for" line, the utility simply wrote "LED Lighting." And it may not be the last, though a second check might be regular-sized: the pair ran out of money when first developing their facility, and had to construct in stages. 

For the record, the lights work just fine: Trail Blazin' marijuana is available at more than a dozen stores around the state. They have about 7,000 feet of plant canopy, and about 140,000 watts of lights installed. Before going live, utility officials came out and checked the lights and installations, making sure they would deliver savings.

"Growing under LED requires different techniques," said Juddy. "People try and use their old techniques with newer LEDs and it doesn't work for them. There’s a learning curve to it."

Sullivan says the LED grow-light industry has made significant progress in the last few years, and "now lighting is being designed for plants. It works. Before that, it was kind of hit or miss."

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