The sun has been around for a long time. So has marijuana. Legal pot in the U.S. hasn’t been around for a long time. In fact, earlier this year Colorado became the first state to sell legal marijuana in the U.S. With the country’s—if not the world’s—eyes on Colorado’s new policy, growers are looking for opportunities to better use their profits while still dealing with federal roadblocks. One potential is investing in solar to offset soaring utility costs for growers in Colorado that grow in warehouses. The issue was at the heart of one of the sessions at Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association’s Solar Power Colorado conference last week.
While marijuana could grow outdoors without much additional care even in Colorado’s climate it’s not legal under the state’s marijuana laws. As such growers must grow marijuana in enclosed spaces like warehouses and, in some cases, greenhouses. Growing in warehouses, particularly becomes amazingly expensive.
Sean Coleman President of 36 Solutions a lobbying organization focused on marijuana and other issues, said his clients in the marijuana industry have electric utility bills that start at $30,000 a month and go up to $100,000. This is largely spent to mimic the light of the sun to grow the plants. “It’s not just about having lights, it’s about having lights with the right spectrum,” he said. “There’s only a certain amount of compromise when you’re doing agriculture which wants to be outdoors, indoors.”
Colman’s largest client pays more than $1 million annually in utilities. “If they have the opportunity to invest $500,000 in solar instead, they would do it now,” he added.
But the equation isn’t so simple. Session moderator Ricardo Baca, The Denver Post’s marijuana editor said that under warehouse conditions, producing a pound of marijuana requires roughly 2,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. Meanwhile producing a pound of aluminum takes 7 kilowatt hours of electricity. Already, Baca said it’s estimated that 1 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. powers marijuana growth operations and in California that’s up to 3 percent.
Brian Nye, now an electric inspector with Boulder County, formerly installed solar arrays, and installed electric systems at marijuana growhouses. He was the only person on the session panel that had experience with installing solar or electricity. “When I was in business I wired some of these grow facilities. I do know that they consume a tremendous amount of electricity and one 1,000-watt light fixture is going to take about 3 kilowatts of PV power, which is a tremendous amount and a lot of these facilities have anywhere from 50-60, 100, 500 light fixtures,” he explained. A solar array designed to meet the needs of a large, 500-light grow house would have to be roughly 1.5 megawatts.
At the same time, Nye thought that advances in lighting could also help make it easier to power grow house facilities. “Lighting companies could develop a lighting fixture that takes a lot less wattage to bring that power consumption down.”
Many solutions were discussed,. Greenhouses, for instance, were mentioned, but zoning issues related to the law have made it hard for growers to use them. Another possibility discussed was using light tubes or pipes to bring in natural sunlight in the day time to offset the need for as much artificial light, even during the seedling part of the plant’s lifecycle when it can take up to 16 or more hours of sunlight.