New Opportunities for Energy Efficiency: Marijuana Growing Ops

Todd Winner, ERS, for Zondits

Energy efficiency programs are increasingly looking for new measures that can generate energy and peak demand savings for customers and their programs. Energy efficiency measures typically considered  “low-hanging fruit,” such as lighting upgrades in interior commercial spaces and the installation of high-efficiency HVAC units in new construction projects, are becoming less and less viable due to the market penetration of these technologies.

On one hand, this is a good thing: it means that energy efficiency programs and related initiatives are transforming the market to make energy efficient products more commonplace. However, it also results in programs that are struggling to meet their savings goals, and must therefore look elsewhere for opportunities.

Enter the indoor marijuana growing industry.

As more and more states legalize marijuana for either medicinal or recreational use, the energy intensity of these operations is beginning to make its impact on the grid in a big way. And while the legality of these businesses may be unclear and at times in conflict between state and federal law, it is essential that they be considered viable targets for efficiency programs if they want to continue the progress made in other sectors.

Marijuana Grow Ops Could Soon Rival Data Center Energy Use

Greentech Media, September 27, 2016

Indoor grows can have an energy intensity of about 2,000 watts per meter, according to the report, A Chronic Problem. A 2012 study from Berkeley Lab found that indoor marijuana production could account for as much as 1 percent of U.S. electricity use, about half the energy consumed by data centers.

Source: NORML/EQ Research
Source: NORML/EQ Research

The energy use is mostly driven by lighting, venting and dehumidifiers. But unlike data centers, which are a focus of energy-efficiency efforts worldwide, the emerging marijuana industry exists in a legal gray area, which creates a barrier to these businesses taking part in state and utility-run efficiency programs.

Although anecdotal evidence abounds, “There is an information vacuum both about, and within, the marijuana industry,” the report finds. Utilities are often unable to or uncomfortable addressing the marijuana cultivation industry, and many growers, even if sanctioned by the state, do not want to share more information than they have to, given the industry’s illegal status at the federal level.

Also, investing in more expensive LEDs and high-efficiency HVAC equipment upfront is often just not a consideration for growers who are already facing a litany of red tape in getting their operations off the ground. And while LEDs may offer superior performance in terms of efficiency and controllability, many growers simply aren’t familiar with them and prefer to go with the technology they are most comfortable with when launching their operations.

That means utilities need to engage growers early on, ideally during the planning phase of their operation, about options for more efficient equipment and what rebates may be available to them.

The report also recommends that utilities try to understand the industry better and design rates that that can help promote efficiency, just as some utilities have designed specific rates for data centers. Some public utility districts in Washington have offered cannabis-cultivation rates, with a daily system charge and non-coincident peak demand rate. A well-designed rate could also be beneficial for more than just marijuana growers.

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