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Pot and Power: Power Planning Council Estimates Demand Growth and Conservation Potential

September 09, 2014 posted by Eric Christensen

As Washington's experiment in legalization of recreational marijuana use moves gradually toward full implementation, the consequences for Washington's utilities are beginning to come into focus. Confirming more general studies we've discussed previously, the Northwest Power & Conservation Council ("NPCC") this week will be discussing a staff report that quantifies the range of increases in electric consumption that may arise from marijuana legalization in Washington, as well as other Northwest states that may follow Washington's lead.

Consistent with other studies, the NPCC study recognizes that, although indoor marijuana cultivation offers a number of advantages to the grower, it is extremely energy intensive. This fact is dramatically illustrated by comparing the energy intensity of indoor marijuana production with the energy intensity of aluminum production, perhaps the most energy-intensive of the Northwest's traditional industries. Aluminum production, the study notes, requires roughly 16 kWh of electricity to produce one kilogram of aluminum, while indoor grow operations require a whopping 4,000-6,000 kWh to produce one kilogram of marijuana. All told, the NPCC estimates, marijuana legalization in Washington will produce an increase in electricity consumption in the range of 60 to 160 average MW over the next two decades, while demand will grow approximately 240 aMW in the four-state region by 2035. In addition, the study notes, the demand from grow operations varies significantly over the course of the day, and a proliferation of grow operations may therefore add to utility peak-hour demands.

The study also suggests that substantial cost-effective energy conservation is available from these facilities. Based on a survey of thirteen cannabis producers licensed to operate in Washington, the study estimates that about eighty percent of power consumed by grow operations goes to high-intensity lighting, with much of the remaining power consumed by HVAC systems. Using LED lighting to replace high-pressure sodium lights and similar energy-intensive fixtures that are now generally used in grow operations, the study estimates, produces both significant energy savings and increases in marijuana production. Specifically, the study estimates that use of LED fixtures can increase cannabis production by about 6% while improving the efficiency of energy conversion by 48%. In aggregate, use of energy-efficient lighting in indoor marijuana grow operations offers the potential for approximately 35 aMW of energy conservation in Washington by 2035, and another 2 aMW is offered by efficiency measures in HVAC systems.

Unfortunately, the limits imposed by federal law, which continues to treat marijuana on a par with herione and other highly-destructive drugs, may make it difficult for utilities to obtain this full conservation potential through traditional conservation programs. New and creative approaches will be needed to ensure that licensed grow operations are operated as efficiently as possible while avoiding entanglements with federal law.