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The aroma of ripening, high-potency cannabis saturates the entire air supply. Matthew Witemyre — chief of staff for the Bay Area collective Medi-Cone — turns on a handheld, green LED light, illuminating two spooky rows of about a dozen flowering medical marijuana plants. Behind a locked door on a property guarded by a retired cop, the green light reveals pregnant, white buds in the breezy darkness.
The lights must stay off because the finishing buds are on a timed cycle of light and darkness that makes them flower. This late in development, each fist-sized cola is sticky, dense, and hard, and glows an alien green in the LED light.
Medi-Cone is finishing off about a dozen huge plants of Trainwreck, Candy Kush, and others in three grow rooms. The small collective grows, grinds, rolls, and distributes pre-rolled joints to Bay Area dispensaries. In just a year, Medi-Cone has grown from serving twelve dispensaries to forty, and the vertically integrated collective strains to keep up with demand.
But that's not its only problem, said Witemyre. There's also the electricity bill. All these fans and air conditioners and lights consume thousands of dollars of juice per cycle. The PG&E bills have surprised the growing company, and it can't get a commercial power rate.
But that doesn't surprise Evan Mills, an energy analyst employed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California. Working independently this spring, the Ph.D revealed some startling statistics about indoor cannabis and the huge amounts of electricity it sucks up. Indoor pot cultivation generates about $5 billion in electricity bills per year in the United States, he estimated, and most of that energy is wasted because growing indoors is 75 percent inefficient.
Mills calculated the carbon footprint of indoor pot and published it in an incendiary independent paper titled Energy Up In Smoke: The Carbon Footprint of Indoor Cannabis Production. A member of the International Panel on Climate Change, Mills cares about energy efficiency. He's worked on everything from data centers to homes, to kerosene used for lighting in the developing world.
"I began noticing the hydroponic and indoor gardening stores popping up all over the place and discovered that the shelves were more densely packed with fans, lights, and dehumidifiers than soils and fertilizers," he wrote in an e-mail. "As a long-time energy analyst, I naturally began doing the math on how much energy was being used."
According to federal drug statistics, the annual production of cannabis nationwide is an estimated 17,000 metric tons — with one-third of it being grown indoors. So Mills then modeled what an "average" ten-by-ten foot indoor growing module would produce (.7 kilograms per cycle) and need in terms of power (2,698 kilowatt-hours per cycle). At an average of 12 cents per kilowatt-hour in Northern California, growing four indoor plants to harvest costs about $323 in electricity approximately every ninety days.
California's indoor marijuana crop alone would fill 600,000 such grow modules — 1.7 million for the nation, Mills estimated. With our current power supply mix, one Medi-Cone joint equals about two pounds of CO2 emissions. It's like running a 100-watt light bulb for seventeen hours.
The April paper exploded online, with dozens of blogs and newspapers, including The New York Times, mentioning Mills and the study. Mills says that some of the data he published has been misconstrued. "The media has really missed the story and misrepresented the analysis in many cases," he said. "Nine out of ten reports focused on who to blame rather than what to do about it. The blame often was placed on producers rather than consumers, which is always a dubious thing to do."
Compared to other energy uses, indoor pot farming isn't that bad, indoor cannabis defenders argue. Indoor pot only uses one-sixth as much electricity as household refrigerators, they contend.
But Mills responds: "I don't have sympathy for cannabis advocates who say that the energy use is too small to worry about — it's not."
The most humorous reaction came from certain conservative climate-change deniers, he said. They were "stumbling over themselves to inadvertently acknowledge the fact of climate change so that they could then blame [pot-smoking] 'liberals' for the [climate] problem and claim that the oil companies should be let off the hook."
"Professionally this has been very exciting," Mills concluded. "It is rare in this day and age that you come across an energy end use that has never been measured, and then to find that it represents something like 8 percent of California's residential electricity use."
Mills' analysis also turned the stomachs of many die-hard environmentalists in Humboldt County. Because, in a way, they knew they helped create the problem.
Looking for adventure/In whatever comes our way ...
Weed cultivation has become something like Humboldt's version of the legendary golem: once the creative pride of the region, now an unstoppable force that threatens their way of life. Just ask Kym Kemp — author of the southern Humboldt blog "Redheaded Blackbelt," which covers the growing culture there. A native and a lifer, Kemp's family has been in the area since the late 1850s.