Could Growing Recreational Marijuana Outdoors Help Save Energy?

May 6, 2015

Growing marijuana indoors requires a lot of energy -- lights to speed up plant growth, dehumidifiers, heating and cooling equipment. Could sustainable outdoor farms be a more environmentally responsible alternative? A group of Washington marijuana growers say yes.

Several workers sit around a  white table in a small room on a marijuana farm in Goldendale, Washington. They’ve got scissors in hand, scales set to carefully measure out grams.

“I am weighing out some weed," said one of the workers. "Yesterday was an 18 hour day trying to get an order out.”

This is the second year growers at Emerald Twist will produce marijuana under Washington state’s recreational law.

Jerry Lapora is the marketing director for the farm. He said they’re trying to make Emerald Twist sustainable by growing buds outdoors with natural sunlight and without pesticides.

“We have a couple different growing styles out here,” Lapora said.

He does use a few light bulbs in his nursery and greenhouse, but he said most light comes from the sun. Beds of tilled soil are mixed with compost and hidden behind tall red fences.

“This is kind of an experiment to grow in the soil," Lapora said. "Never grown in the soil out here.”

He said it will give the plants a distinct flavor, like wines grown in different regions. But more importantly, it will save a ton of energy.

Massoud Jourabchi is heading up the Northwest Power and Conservation Council study of marijuana’s impact on energy use. He compared it to the region’s biggest electricity-consuming industry of the last century.

“Production of cannabis could be more energy intensive than the aluminum industry, pound for pound,” Jourabchi said.

The council’s preliminary study found indoor marijuana grows could eventually require the same amount of energy it would take to power 60,000 homes. Jourabchi said indoor growers are taking steps to conserve energy. Steps like using LED light bulbs or solar panels.

Stephen Jensen owns High Mountain, a new marijuana farm north of Spokane. He said for years, marijuana has been grown indoors — with a reason.

“The mentality of the industry has grown up around indoor," Jensen said. "Security reasons and stealth reasons.”

Jensen said now is the time for the industry to figure out how to become more sustainable.

One reason: More growers will continue to open farms in the Northwest. Growers in Oregon will soon face some of these same choices. Oregon voters decided last year to legalize recreational marijuana. The state will begin accepting licenses for growers by next January.

Even if Northwest marijuana growers can reduce their energy footprint, there are other environmental sins by the industry that need atonement. Studies have linked illegal pot farms in Northern California  to water stolen from rivers and creeks, pesticides that have harmed salmon, and wildlife deaths caused by rat poison.

Jensen said that’s not how legal outdoor grows would be run.

“In California it was kind of do what you have to do and not get arrested. It’ll be a totally different scenario when people are growing legally,” Jensen said. 

For six years, David Rice grew marijuana indoors. Then he decided to grow his plants in greenhouses on San Juan Island — more so he could work outside. Rice said now there’s no going back. He’s since co-founded the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association.

But Rice said it will be difficult to convince people to move marijuana farms outdoors.

“Sun grown production becoming a dominant method of production faces some very unique and distinct headwinds from incredibly low power rates and the cap on square footage,” Rice said.

That cap limits the area that growers in Washington can devote to pot production -- regardless whether it’s an indoor or outdoor operation.

Rice said indoor growers could produce  five or six crops per year. But outdoor growers could get as few as two crops.

At Emerald Twist, Jerry Lapora said tests show that growing marijuana indoors or outside doesn’t affect the levels of THC — that’s the chemical that gets you high. But he said indoor plants do look nicer.

“So if we’re going to suck the grid just so we have pretty looking flowers, it just doesn’t make sense to me,” Lapora said.

Lapora said he and Jensen are thinking about starting up a co-op for legal outdoor growers in Washington. It’s the same approach that’s helped farmers -- from dairy operators to blueberry growers -- for decades.

Copyright 2015 Northwest Public Radio