Green Grass: An Eco Friendly Label for the Massachusetts Cannabis Industry

Marijuana grow sites can be incredibly large, which increases its already intense energy consumption (Image: forwardgro.com)

Britnay Beaudry: Environmental Science major

Colin Radon: Horticulture major

Pierce Strumpf: Natural Resource Conservation major

The legalization of  marijuana, which went into effect in Massachusetts on December 15th, 2016 was a triumphant victory for marijuana activists and state government. (Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 2018).  Support for this policy change can be seen in the record setting attendance of events like the Boston Freedom Rally, and Extravaganja (Hilliard & Crimaldi, 2017; Tidwell, 2018). But, while marijuana activists have been celebrating their new freedoms, the Cannabis Control Commission [CCC] has been busy writing draft legislation to regulate the budding marijuana industry (CCC, 2018). Starting July 2018, the CCC will begin reviewing applications of recreational marijuana growers (Hilliard & Crimaldi, 2017, para. 20). Many growers are eager for reform and see this as an opportunity to turn their operations legitimate. But before they can receive the necessary permits, they will be expected to reduce their notoriously high energy demands (Dumcius, 2018) The Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs [EEA] and the CCC have been meticulously developing strict regulations to reduce the carbon footprint of marijuana production(EEA, 2018; CCC 2018)  Some growers fear that the regulations, which includes plans to force led lighting on new growers, will cripple the industry before it even has a chance to take off (Dumcius, 2018). “If the commission’s trying to ensure that Massachusetts is known as a state with poor-quality product and high prices this is a great way to do it” Says Kris Kane president of a cannabis consulting company known as 4Front Ventures (Dumcius, 2018, para. 4). Disagreement over environmental regulations threaten to delay the quickly approaching application process. If Marijuana growers refuse to compromise on the bill, the fate of the marijuana industry could go up in smoke.

The EEA anticipates that Massachusetts will see rapid growth in marijuana production and energy consumption due to the recent legalization of recreational marijuana (Boulder County, 2018; Hood, 2018; Shapiro, 2017). In order to address energy problems, newly legalized states like Colorado have also attempted to regulate the industry. Boulder County,  a major cultivation area in Colorado, charges growers an extra 2.16 cents per Kwh of electricity in order to discourage careless energy consumption (Boulder County, 2018, para. 3). However, these energy reduction efforts were outpaced by the rapid growth of the marijuana industry (Hood, 2018). Since 2012, the city has seen a 1% increase in energy consumption due to indoor marijuana grow facilities each year (Hood, 2018, fig. 1). To put this in perspective, a 1% increase in energy use in Boulder is equivalent to the addition of over 1,300 households to the local power grid (Boulder County, 2018, para 6). Similarly, in California, marijuana grows are responsible for about 3% of the states electricity use (Mills, 2012, para 22). This energy used for marijuana production totals 368,681 megawatts of electricity, which is enough energy to power over 29,627 houses for a full year (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2018, p. 1; Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], 2018). Based on these statistics, Massachusetts should see a similar increase in energy requirements for marijuana production.

The increase in energy use caused by production of marijuana drives power stations to generate more electricity, and the sources of this energy can contribute to climate change. Power plants provide energy by burning fossil fuels like natural gas, coal, and petroleum; and from this process greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere (EPA, 2018).  Massachusetts gets the majority of its energy from this method, as it generated 66% of its electricity from natural gas and 5.8% of its electricity from coal in 2016 (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2017, p. 1). The more energy that is required, the more carbon emissions are going to be released from greenhouse gas polluting sources. This is bad for the environment, because these carbon emissions in the atmosphere act as a barrier that traps heat and increases climate change (EPA, 2018). Marijuana production in particular is becoming a source of these emissions, as one kg of final cannabis product is associated with 4600 kg of carbon emissions to the atmosphere (Mills, 2012. p. 48). One study estimated national carbon emissions from production at levels as high as 69,000 metric tons annually (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, 2010, p. 6). This is equal to the amount of electricity used by 8,945 homes in one year (EPA, 2018). These numbers can be expected to increase with more marijuana production facilities developing across the nation. This is a concern for states with climate initiatives, such as Massachusetts.

The increased energy use brought on by marijuana production is in direct conflict with Massachusetts’ current goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The state’s Clean Energy and Climate Plan aims for a total greenhouse gas emission reduction of 25% below the 1990 baseline greenhouse gas emission level by 2020 (EEA, n.d., p. 1). From 2008 to 2014, Massachusetts successfully reduced its carbon emissions from 88 million metric tons to 74.6 million metric tons (Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, 2014 para. 2). However, Pilgrim nuclear power plant is set to close by 2019. Losing Pilgrim, the largest energy contributor in the renewable energy sector, will increase the total carbon emissions rate of Massachusetts power grid (Associated Press, 2015). Massachusetts expects this change combined with the increased energy demand from growers to effect the gains achieved by this policy thus far (Associated Press, 2015; EEA, 2015). The increasing demand of energy brought on by marijuana production combined with the loss of its biggest source of non-emitting energy will have a detrimental impact on Massachusetts’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction policy. Because of these factors, marijuana cultivation will negatively impact Massachusetts’s goals outlined in The Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2020 (EEA, 2015).

In order to reduce the environmental impacts of marijuana, the EEA encourages growers to make use of any natural lighting and install renewable energy sources like solar panels or wind turbines. Growers that do not use 100 percent renewable energy are required to adhere to electricity limits and keep lighting power to 36 watts per square foot. The lower wattage forces growers to use Led Lighting (Dumcuis, 2018).

Lighting seems like a good target for reducing overall energy production because it accounts for over a third of the total energy consumption of production (Mills 2012). In fact  It is the largest energy consuming aspect of production due to marijuanas high lighting demands, as much intensity as a mid summer afternoon, for 12 hours a day or more. Large grow facilities can contain 50,000 to 100,000 watts of installed lighting power alone, which is enough energy for the average car to drive 182 miles (Brady, 2004; EPA, 2018). While these regulations are a step forward in the right direction in shrinking the carbon footprint of the marijuana industry, they overlook the growers that are struggling maintain their business under these restrictions. Growers that do not have the resources, space, or means to apply renewable energy sources to their operations are forced to limit their lighting electricity use to 36 watts per square foot (Dumcuis, 2018, p. 3).  Traditional high pressure sodium grow lights use from 50 to 70 watts per square foot, so this regulation forces growers to change to LED (Light Emitting Diode) lights. While LED lights are cooler and more efficient than traditional light bulbs, they are also significantly more expensive (Mulqueen, Lee & Zafar, 2017, p.8-9). High-pressure sodium lights cost around $200 for one 600 watt light, an LED of the same strength cost at least $850 (High Tech Garden Supply, 2018) In addition, the light given off by the LED lights is also less intense than the high-pressure sodium bulbs and can result in lower potency and yield in marijuana cultivation (Adams, 2018, p. 3). Growers that are required to use these lights are now at a disadvantage to their competition as they have inferior product in reduced quantity.

When considering the problem of LED lighting, it is important to address why growers are so dependent on artificial lighting in the first place. The history of illegal cultivation paints a clear picture of the issue. In  2013, the DEA seized marijuana form 15 identically managed grow houses, each containing about 1,000 to 2,000 marijuana plants. The houses were filled with electrical wiring. A series of 50+ outlets running along a hallway connected high intensity discharge lighting, water pumps, air conditioners, dehumidifiers, and an extensive fan operated ventilation system connected to stolen electricity (Drug Enforcement Administration, 2013).

Historically marijuana has been grown indoors without natural lighting. Historically, cultivators did it out of necessity to hide their plants. As marijuana becomes legalized, growers have shifted away from some of the more energy intensive methods of illegal production(Mills, 2012; Warren, 2015). However, most operations continue to grow indoors due to advantages over outdoor cultivation including: Security, better control over pest and disease management, higher yield per area, and a general familiarity with indoor production methods(Mills, 2012; Warren, 2015). To growers, high energy consumption is a small price to pay for these overall benefits.

Switching from indoor grows to greenhouses with natural lighting could reduce the need for lighting without forcing growers to settle for expensive LED lights. A lower energy rate would make it possible to implement the Green Grass program, an environmentally friendly solution which would benefit growers and environmentalists alike. The label would be offered to growers who use 100 percent renewable energy during methods of production. By adhering to the Green Grass program’s standards, growers would receive a seal promoting its environmentally conscious practices.

This seal would act similarly to the Fairtrade seal, and would attract customers who are willing to pay a higher premium for an environmentally-friendly product (Boasson & Taylor, 2014). The increased prices will ensure that any costs lost due to the energy-efficient methods of the Green Grass program will be economically favorable for the growers. Furthermore, the increased popularity of the Green Grass program will not only improve the sales of products with the seal, it will also positively impact the reduction of carbon emissions in the state of Massachusetts. This reduction in carbon emissions will aid the state in its goal of achieving its standards for the Clean Energy and Climate Plan by 2020 (EEA, 2015).

Product labeled with the Green Grass seal would fetch a higher price at the dispensary, similar to  thus allowing a quicker return on the investment into renewable energy.While the higher price may discourage some customers, others would feel encouraged to buy sustainably certified marijuana similarly to purchasing Fairtrade goods. The Fairtrade Foundation is a non-profit organization that works with companies in the food industry to ensure the fair treatment of farmers and workers.  Companies that are Fairtrade certified have demonstrated that they pay their workers a just wage and aren’t treated inhumanely (Fairtrade:Who we are, 2018). Fairtrade certified products cost more than others because the workers producing this food are guaranteed a livable wage. It is these conscientious business practices that make their products desirable for customers.While Fairtrade focuses on the treatment of the workers that are producing the food, the Green Grass seal on marijuana would guarantee that the marijuana was cultivated with environmentally friendly practice by utilizing 100 percent renewable energy. Marijuana that is stamped with this seal of approval would fetch a higher price from consumers who value sustainability. A study in Michigan to determined whether or not people were willing to pay more money for Fairtrade goods. Out of the entire group, 58 percent of subjects were aware of the existence of the Fairtrade label 38 percent of subjects were willing to pay a higher premium for Fairtrade goods (Boasson & Taylor, 2014). It can be seen in this study that people are willing to pay more for Fairtrade goods, but not enough customers were even aware of the option. The promotion of the Green Grass products through the dispensaries will ensure that customers are made aware of this sustainable option.

A group effort made by Massachusetts government, growers, and dispensaries would be required to execute the Green Grass program. Green grass is the label massachusetts needs to reinforce it’s status as a United States energy leader (EEA, 2015).

 

References

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Evan

2 Comments

  1. I’m all for people choosing to do as they wish, but of course, this comes with trade-offs. I never thought about how we will need to focus on energy consumption. Especially considering the size of these operations.

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