With the marijuana industry's explosion, concern has bloomed over its resource consumption, especially at indoor outfits. Given fans, pumps, armies of thirsty plants and high-intensity lighting, utility usage will dwarf that of a homeowner.
Take Pueblo's The Cannasseur Dispensary, where manager Jessica Rodriguez spends around $8,000 on electricity in a typical month to nurture a mature crop of around 800 plants. Altitude Organic Medicine and Southern Colorado Medical Marijuana share similar figures, which those businesses graciously gave as we sought random samplings locally. (Colorado Springs Utilities isn't allowed to share customer information and can't "categorically determine usage by business type," says spokesman Dave Grossman.)
Larger Denver outfits, some of which grow for many individual businesses, reportedly spend tens of thousands of dollars monthly. A national study in 2011 estimated that the marijuana industry then accounted for 1 percent of national electricity consumption, equating to $6 billion annually, enough to run 2 million homes. The pollution generated equated to that from 3 million cars.
It's numbers like these that have inspired mandates from Colorado's green-leader, Boulder County. By Jan. 1, businesses must "directly offset 50 percent of electricity consumption through a verified subscription in a Community Solar Garden, renewable energy generated on site, or equivalent approved by the Building Official." On that same day in 2016, the mandate will jump to 100 percent.
You might think these businesses could easily afford greater investment in renewables. For instance, at Maggie's Farm in Manitou Springs, recreational sales-tax collections suggest the business sold roughly $2.15 million in product between July 31 and Oct. 7. (That operation grows entirely outdoors, for the record.)
But before we argue that the industry should be greener, let's examine why, speaking broadly, it hasn't been.
"I want to see myself as a green guy," says Southern Colorado Medical Marijuana co-owner Don McKay. At SCMM, McKay engages in recycling efforts and uses a water recirculating system, reducing the organic fertilizer he consumes. (Other conservation-minded equipment, such as moisture meters to avoid excess watering and dehumidifiers that combat evaporation loss, can also help on the water side of savings.) But as for electric, he says, "The expenses of everything else in the industry are so high. Trying to offset [15,000 square feet] with solar would be a significant burden."
McKay says he'll jump on LED lighting as soon as the technology becomes more affordable and reaches an intensity comparable to what he gets from his high-pressure, 1,000-watt sodium bulbs. He then directs me to competitor Tree of Wellness, which has switched to LED.
Lori Shiner, a manager there, says though individual ballasts cost around $500, she's seen electricity usage cut roughly in half. "If you go cheap, you won't be satisfied," she says. "You need to pay for the good ones. I love them, they make a huge difference in the medicine — they don't stress the plants. It's easier to grow."
Moving lighting ballasts farther from plants helps save resources, too. But if you want to take a quantum leap without going solar, you're looking at a greenhouse setup, where manufacturers promise 25 to 50 percent reductions in electricity. The problem: Startup costs for their elaborate climate-control systems can reach as much as $2 million an acre, according to Marijuana Business Daily reporting.
Luther Bonow at Altitude Organic Medicine says "everyone would love to use renewable energy, but it takes time to build your business to where you want, then go back and upgrade ... we're just trying to hold onto money to expand."
Bonow plans growth into Pueblo specifically to get into a greenhouse, and he's also eying water and soil reclamation systems, and maybe solar panels.
"All the businesses are trying to figure out how to reduce their carbon footprint and improve efficiency," says Mike Elliott of the Marijuana Industry Group. "I just don't see the collective knowledge being shared right now."
And then, as we chat, he experiences an "aha" moment: "I'm not sure what entity would be doing that. I suppose my trade association should be doing that."
So, why isn't it?
"The entire industry is drinking from a fire hose right now, dealing with one issue after another — 70 pages of rules for retail marijuana were just released two weeks ago. So much is still changing and energy is certainly an important topic, but it's only one of many."
Mark Slaugh of iComply, a cannabis lobbying firm, concurs, arguing via email that the marijuana industry "contends with more regulation than oil/gas and fracking." He says there's an obvious incentive to reduce costs over the long haul, but "it takes money to make money, and many of these operators do not have access to traditional financial services and banks who help small businesses grow. I would be apt to say most of these guys are open to making these investments if they had the bandwidth and resources to do so."
Makes sense. But ultimately, is it a cop out? Again, some outfits' revenues suggest that surely there's a little spare change for LEDs, wind credits or solar panels, yes?
Maybe Boulder has it right: Don't leave it up for question or convenient timing. Just force the issue and let the buds fall where they may.