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In a booming industry that shows no signs of slowing down, how can we collectively work towards implementing effective policy and technological measures to reduce energy and water consumption in the years to come? After all, it is in everyone’s best interest to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) and other adverse environmental consequences that result from human activities if we are to fight against the current Climate Crisis (CC) and guarantee a sustainable future for generations to come.

The market demand for legalized marijuana and industrial hemp for medicinal, recreational, and commercial consumption has undeniably continued to rapidly expand within the state of Colorado. As a result, local and state governments, energy utility companies, industry professionals and consumers alike have struggled to responsibly apply sustainable protocols into their practices to limit the cannabis industry’s carbon footprint and freshwater use. There is, however, room for a significant shift towards an eco-friendly model if parties in both the private and government sectors work together to gather applicable data, execute stringent requirements, and promote the use of renewable energy alternatives through tax or production incentives.

So, why does this industry utilize so much energy? Unfortunately, Colorado’s geographic location is not well suited to support the year-round cultivation of commercial scale marijuana in an outdoor environment. Most cultivators have had to adapt and transition their operations indoors where they can meet the specific requirements needed to maximize crop yields and inevitably meet the high consumer demand for potent product. Although there are numerous practices and technologies implemented in various operations, all growing facilities need the following systems, at a minimum, to be successful: high intensity lighting, dehumidifying and filtration measures, temperature and climate controls, water heaters, purifying systems, and backup generators. Due to the use of indoor mechanization processes, the cannabis industry utilizes an estimated 1-2% of Colorado’s electricity consumption. Although this may seem like a small number, consider that researchers who specialize in energy data within the industry expect the total electricity usage to increase 162% by 2022 due to demand. As a result, the current electricity grid infrastructure will undoubtedly have additional costly strains, carbon dioxide emissions will continue to rise, and financial pressures will disrupt local and statewide economies.

On the bright side, there are ways to cut down on energy use. Koan Energy Consulting, a firm that focuses on energy performance, has developed an excellent framework to help the industry become ‘greener’, or more sustainable. The highlights of this framework include: (1) Developing a strong utility and energy management plan to determine an operation’s performance, detect discrepancies, and shed light on areas of improvement by analyzing the facility’s utility bills; (2) Educating owners and employees on the importance of carbon outputs, peak demand charges, energy efficiency, and conservation; (3) Incentivizing the use of energy efficient controls and equipment, encouraging the use of renewable alternatives [solar photovoltaics, battery storage, wind/hydropower] and referring to similar business models such as Controlled Environment Agriculture which is frequently used to grow fruits and vegetables year-round in Colorado.

In addition to professional recommendations on energy and water saving measures, politicians at every level need to push for industry standards that require more efficient industrial and technological practices while guaranteeing a strong and predictable economic environment for stakeholders in the cannabis industry. Given that major utility companies, such as Xcel, have stringent carbon reducing goals aimed at becoming completely carbon free energy providers by 2050 with the addition of renewable energy sources, there lies a very viable opportunity to include those in the cannabis and similar industries on the path towards a carbon-free future.

The ways in which the rapidly expanding legal cannabis industry functions as a whole will inevitably transform towards sustainable and efficient practices in the near future if we, collectively, advocate for eco-friendly industries with the help of cross-sector collaboration and policy decision makers. By providing holistic frameworks for progress and encouraging social inclusion and education on environmental issues, we can effectively combat the climate crisis at hand and prevent unnecessary human induced ecological damage in the long run. Time is of the essence.

In the words of the Indian scholar and environmental activist, Dr. Vandana Shiva, “If governments won’t solve the climate, hunger, health, and democracy crisis, then the people will. Regenerative and sustainable agriculture provides answers to the soil crisis, the food crisis, the health crisis, the climate crisis, and the crisis of democracy”.

Rico Foucauld - Pot Zero - 2019By Rico Foucauld - Pot Zero - 2019 (Rico Foucauld – Deep in the mountains of Gypsum, Colorado 2019)

I had the absolute pleasure of speaking to the owners of Pot Zero – a 100% carbon free plantation that utilizes a 15 kW hydroelectric turbine to power the irrigation systems, lighting requirements (used prior to transfering the plants outdoors at a particular growing stage), and industrial defrosting fans for over 6,000 individual plants last growing season. Operations such as these can and will be part of the growing number of industry leaders pushing for regenerative, sustainable, and fair practices.