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Washington became one of the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012. But there are a lot of challenges ahead: the state must set up a licensing system for marijuana growers and sellers, the federal government may mount a challenge, the need to set a new limit on amount of marijuana in the bloodstream for safe driving. And medical marijuana is still in the picture.Over the next several months we will be exploring the issue and tracking the impact of I-502.

Northwest Marijuana Growers Try To Go Green (But It's Hard)

Solstice's Joe Santucci says new technologies reduce the need for power-hungry lights. But they aren't totally embracing LEDs.
KUOW Photo/Amy Radil
Solstice's Joe Santucci says new technologies reduce the need for power-hungry lights. But they aren't totally embracing LEDs.

Marijuana growers in the Northwest are going to use a lot of electricity in the next 20 years, enough to power up to 200,000 homes, according to a recent forecast.

That’s because a lighting module to grow four marijuana plants takes as much energy as 29 refrigerators.

After some hesitation, Washington utilities are now rewarding marijuana growers for reducing their energy use. 

At Trail Blazin’ Productions in Bellingham, Juddy Rosellison grows marijuana indoors using all LED lights. Rosellison has found pros and cons to LEDs – they produce lower yields than traditional high-intensity lights, but their performance has improved over time. He said LEDs use much less electricity and generate a lot less heat.  

“Our power bill is probably half of what it should be, and our air-conditioning bills are probably 70 percent less,” he said. 

But LEDs and other energy-saving technologies often cost a lot more than traditional alternatives. Last summer, Rosellison’s local utility, Puget Sound Energy, gave him a rebate of $150,000 to help pay for more efficient equipment.

It was a seriously big check. Like on the gameshow “The Price is Right,” Rosellison said.

“A 3-foot tall by 5-foot long check written out in the amount of the rebate, and it was presented to us at a City of Bellingham Chamber of Commerce luncheon,” he said.

The event was notable mostly because the recipient was a marijuana grower. Investor-owned utilities like PSE were among the first to offer incentives to legal marijuana businesses for greater efficiency.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Danielle and Juddy Rosellison accept giant rebate check as PSE employees look on.", "fid": "123620", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201601/rosellison_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Puget Sound Energy"}]]“We’ve taken the same approach that we would take with any large, intense-usage customer which is, we’ve got an obligation to pursue reasonable conservation efforts and we’ve taken that on,” said Jason Teller, a vice president at PSE.

PSE’s energy is drawn almost equally from coal and hydroelectric power, with a smaller percentage from natural gas. Indoor marijuana production could increase energy demands and carbon emissions.

But Teller said some growers don’t like the results they get with LEDs. They’d rather pay higher bills for traditional lights and more air-conditioning.

“In working with growers, we’ve heard LED lighting might not always produce the same outcomes for the grower,” he said.

Public utilities are also cautiously starting to offer rebates for growers. But with marijuana still illegal under federal law, those utilities are unlikely to hold a photo-op when they write them big checks. They don’t want to jeopardize the power they buy from the Bonneville Power Administration – or the federal grants they receive. 

Seattle City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen said the utility has concluded that it can safely work with marijuana growers as long as the program is not marijuana-specific. They’re classified under “indoor agriculture.” 

“We’re agnostic as to the product that’s being grown,” Thomsen said. “We’re more concerned about the type of lighting and heating, ventilation and cooling that you’re using.”

He said so far City Light has agreements with four grow operations to perform “energy efficiency upgrades.” No rebates have been paid out yet. 

The Snohomish County Public Utility District does not currently offer energy efficiency rebates to marijuana growers, but spokesman Neil Neroutsos said they are monitoring what other utilities are doing, and may review that decision this year.

Thomsen said marijuana growers, along with data centers and electric cars, constitute some of the new power-hungry customers for Seattle City Light. Seattle is home to 17 marijuana growers, but up to 100 more could soon be permitted.

“This is not unlike dropping in 100 data centers,” Thomsen said.

“To give you a comparison, this type of agriculture uses about 300 kilowatt-hours per square foot. A typical office building in Seattle uses about 18 kilowatt-hours per square foot.”

The city’s power comes from hydroelectric dams, so these new uses don’t pose the same questions about carbon emissions as in coal-powered areas. But Thomsen said greater efficiency is helping keep overall energy demand flat despite the area’s population growth.

Alex Cooley is the co-founder of the marijuana producer Solstice, in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood. His is one of the marijuana businesses now working with City Light. He said the utility initially turned him down for the program but more recently "the tide has shifted."

Still, Solstice is only using LED lighting for part of the growing cycle. Cooley said he’s not happy enough with LEDs to go all the way.

“It doesn’t produce the type of cannabis that we want to produce; it doesn’t pencil for us properly,” he said. “You can’t command as high of a price point as we feel we need to for indoor cannabis.”

But they are reducing their need for those high-intensity lights in other ways. In one corner of their production facility, mother plants that supply the DNA for the marijuana they grow bask in the glow of those hot, power-hungry light bulbs.

But Marketing Director Joe Santucci said they’re now preserving cuttings from those plants in petri dishes. Soon those bright lights won’t always be necessary. 

“As long as we have that – basically DNA of that plant in a dish – we don’t need to have the mothers anymore,” Santucci said.

Nearby racks of smaller plants sit under glowing pink LEDs. Solstice is opening a much larger production facility nearby, at a cost of $8 million. Cooley said he’d rather put that money into growing marijuana under the sun.

“We have a 44-acre farm, we have a 10-year master plan for 10 greenhouses,” he said. “It is very much so on our radar.”

But he said investors aren’t willing to fund that type of project right now.

Most legal marijuana is grown indoors in Washington. According to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, 53 percent of licensed marijuana growers are indoor, while 22 percent are outdoor and 24 percent are both.

Year started with KUOW: 2005