It was not all that long ago that federal and state laws were pretty unforgiving of those who grew, distributed, or used cannabis or marijuana. Though there were a few legal growers, licensed to grow it for such things as medical research, it was grown primarily for use as an illegal drug.
It was possible for authorities to find cannabis that was grown outdoors by aerial surveillance techniques, including some based on color analysis of photographs. The result was that many growers had to hide their operations to stay out of trouble. One way they tried to do this was to give up outdoor growing and move the crop to greenhouses, but it still could be detected. Then, the crop was moved indoors, where it was grown under grow-lights. Even the grow-lights attracted attention from their light in windows, however, and so the crops were finally moved to rooms without windows.
Of course, the high-security cannabis growers had to do more with their energy use than grow-lights. The temperature had to be right for the plants. So did the humidity. That is just a start of energy costs of cannabis production. Referring to indoor cannabis growing, a paper published by the journal ScienceDirect states, “This article estimates the energy consumption for this practice in the United States at 1% of national electricity use, or $6 billion each year. One average kilogram of final product is associated with 4,600 kg of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.” (https://bit.ly/SD-cannabis)
This means that indoor production of a pound of cannabis would produces 4,600 pounds of CO₂, and since a gallon of gasoline burns to produce 20 pounds of CO₂, indoor production of a pound of cannabis would produce as much CO₂ as burning 230 gallons of gasoline. That would drive a car that get 25 miles per gallon 5,700 miles.
Colorado provides a shocking example. A Smithsonian Magazine article points out that in Colorado, “the weed industry’s greenhouse gas emissions (2.6 megatons of carbon dioxide) exceed those of the state’s coal mining industry (1.8 megatons of carbon dioxide).” (https://bit.ly/SM-colorado) And an article published at Arstechnica last year says if all growers in Colorado moved outdoors, it would decrease emissions associated with the product by 96%, while reducing the state’s electricity demand by 1.3%. It also says moving from indoor production to a greenhouse would cut emissions by half (https://bit.ly/AT-colorado).
For those of us who take some interest in cannabis, there is some good news. New state laws have been decriminalizing marijuana, and the federal government has become more interested in other things. Even those who take little or no interest in cannabis (I can attest that such people do exist) can be happy that the indoor growing methods are no longer needed in many places, especially for licensed growers, and that means a reduction in the electricity demand and carbon emissions.
Some cannabis growers happen also to be committed environmentalists who are working to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, even to the point of having net-zero emissions. We have an example of a cannabis farm in Maine that is working hard to do just that.
Nate Burdick is an outdoor enthusiast who is very conscious of the environmental impacts of the things he does. He founded Upward Organics in 2018 on ten acres of land. One goal was to grow organic, medical cannabis for dispensaries, caregivers, and patients, using the most environmental practices. This implied that the crop would be hand grown and given as much exposure to sunshine as possible.
The growing methods seems similar to those of organic farming. Burdick uses a high-quality compost that is produced in Maine, complete with lobster shells and rich in worms. The shells supply a large amount of chitin, which helps plants’ immune systems. Air circulation kills respiratory pathogens that might be present in cannabis grown indoors. When sunlight is low in winter, additional light comes from LEDs. Upward Organics uses no pesticides to grow its crops.
According to the Upward Organics web site, growing cannabis outdoors has a number of benefits in addition to just reducing GHG emissions. Sun grown cannabis can have a superior effect as well as greater terpenes, flavonoids and cannabinoids. According to information at the Upward Organics web site, their cannabis has a richer terpene profile than cannabis grown indoors, with positive effects for the immune system, cerebral blood flow, cortical activity, and anti-inflammatory activity, while killing respiratory pathogens. Upward Organics products can be found at Atlantic Farms, Forest City Reserve, Living Soil Cannabis, and Seaweed medical wholesale partners.
When Burdick started Upward Organics, it was off-grid. It had fifteen solar panels, and a wood stove was supplied with firewood cut on-site. But he discovered that growing cannabis, even outside, uses a lot of electricity. So, when the time came to improve the systems being used, there was a lot of expansion for energy and efficiency.
Burdick had Maine Solar Solutions add ten panels on the garage to the 15 ground-mount panels already in use (mainesolarsolutions.com). The total solar capacity is 9.25kW. One greenhouse now has a climate battery under it to store heat from warmer weather to use later. He also hired Briburn Architects in Portland, Maine, which specializes in green and net-zero buildings, to build their home and garage. Chris Briley was their designer (briburn.com).
Burdick hopes that by redefining “sustainable” within the cannabis industry in Maine, cultivators can team up and learn best practices from one another.
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