Pot, Power & Pollution: The Overlooked Impacts of Marijuana Legalization on Utilities and the Environment
Last month, Washington issued its first license for a legal marijuana grow operation under Initiative 502 ("I-502"), the marijuana legalization measure adopted by Washington voters in November 2012. A wave of additional operations will follow, as about 2,800 producers have applied for licenses to grow marijuana. While the implications of I-502 for the criminal justice system, land use, taxation and many other issues have been widely debated, the potentially significant changes in electricity and water use that are likely to follow from I-502's implementation have received almost no scrutiny. Nor have the important implications for environmental protection. Given the stakes, Washington utilities and environmental regulators should pay close attention to I-502 and the ongoing process of implementing the initiative.
At the outset, it is important to understand that the United States already produces huge amounts of cannabis. Official estimates suggest that U.S. production was somewhere in the range of 10,000 to 24,000 metric tons in 2001, making it America's largest cash crop by value. A more recent study suggests that production may actually be far higher - 69,000 metric tons. Given that marijuana production generally remains illegal, these estimates are highly uncertain. But there is little doubt that, as marijuana production comes out of the shadows and into the realm of legitimate business, power and water utilities will need to confront a number of serious and complex issues.
Implications for Electric Utilities
For electric utilities, legalization is a major concern because cannabis production, which generally relies on energy-intensive indoor growing operations, uses huge amounts of electricity. One recent study estimates that marijuana production may account for as much as 1% of the nation's entire electric consumption, accounting for a total bill of approximately $6 billion. In California, the numbers are even higher. Marijuana production in that state is estimated to use 3% of all electricity consumed there, equivalent to 9% of all residential electricity use.