Budding marijuana sector brings big load growth, efficiency challenges for utilities

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r the utility industry, the expanding legalization of marijuana represents a unique opportunity to create load and demand management assets out of whole cloth. Demand for pot clearly exists, and meeting that demand requires a lot of energy.

While some growers today are more concerned about securing enough power for their operations than saving money, they also want help with their energy usage. Utilities have been incorporating marijuana operations into existing efficiency programs, but the industry’s unique needs call for more specific attention from power companies.

As the cannabis industry grows, optimizing energy use and lowering expenses will play a growing role in running a successful business. One particular challenge today is the absence of good information on current energy use.

​Lack of hard data

Marijuana is big business.

The drug is legal, either for medical or recreational users, in almost 30 states and the District of Columbia. Eight states and the District have legalized recreational use, in some places setting off new industries.

To put the industry’s energy needs in perspective, the Northwest Power & Conservation Council (NPCC) forecast a regional load for Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington of between 180 MW and 300 MW for indoor grow operations by 2035. Indoor cannabis production is on a short list of “emerging markets” where NPCC wants to collect more data — along with data centers and rooftop solar.

But a major problem facing the cannabis industry right now is a lack of hard data regarding its energy use.

It’s only in recent years that growers have been legal — before that, plants were either outdoors or owners were trying to hide their energy consumption. Today, legal growers are often forced indoors by local regulations.

Derek Smith, executive director of Resource Innovation Institute, is trying to tackle the data issue. The cannabis and conservation firm (possibly a first) has developed a Cannabis Power Score which attempts to give growers a rough idea of where their energy use stands and how efficient it is. But the real purpose is data collection.

“We’ve been encouraging utilities to fund a national baseline study with regional variations for two-plus years, but it is not being done,” Smith told Utility Dive. “We hope they will, but in the meantime, we created this cannabis power score tool to at least begin the process of collecting much better data across states, climate and growing zones.”

The tool asks growers for a wide range of information, including inputs from their utility bill, production cycles, lighting and HVAC equipment, and sales. In return, growers get a score that rates their energy use relative to similar growers, and an estimate of kWh used to produce a gram or pound of marijuana.

 

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