Grass gets greener: New state program promotes sustainability, save dollars for cannabis industry

Colorado wants to make sure the grass gets greener in its own backyard. A new state program wants to help marijuana growers be more energy efficient.

The Cannabis Resource Optimization Program, or CROP, will offer technical assistance to growers who want to better understand their current energy and water use and learn about cost-effective strategies to improve efficiency. The program will also offer a financing component for cannabis cultivators later this year, according to a press release.

When it comes to energy costs, marijuana cultivation can add up. Indoor cultivation is particularly inefficient due to the need for artificial lighting and climate controls. In 2020, a Health Europa report found indoor cannabis grows tend to use around 14 times more electricity per square foot than the average home or office building. Cannabis cultivated in a greenhouse uses less than half that of an indoor grow, and outdoor cultivation, conversely, requires substantially less electricity than an average home or office building.

One marijuana cigarette takes the same amount of production energy as 18 pints of beer, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Colorado Energy Office wants to change that. Sustainable Cannabis Program Manager Libby Lee said growers can now get help becoming more energy-efficient through energy audits and recommendations for efficient upgrades. Simple changes, like swapping out high pressure sodium lights for LED bulbs, could help improve overall energy efficiency.

“There are opportunities to be growing cannabis in a very sustainable way, and a lot of that has to do with the way that we’re using energy,” Lee said. “We are providing those technical assessments for cannabis businesses to understand where they stand, how much energy they’re using, the opportunities to make these changes and how that will improve their facility.”

The state also plans to step in to arrange low-interest financing in partnership with the Colorado Clean Energy Fund to make those improvements happen.

“It’s a really big upfront cost,” Lee said. “Due to the lack of federal laws regulating cannabis production and distribution, banks have been really reluctant to provide affordable financing.”

Truman Bradley, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a trade association representing the Colorado cannabis industry, said some Colorado cannabis businesses have already invested in energy-efficient appliances or received support from their utility companies to do so.

The new state program aims to support those who have yet to make the leap.

“They’re hoping that with this program, that number rises,” Bradley said of the number of energy-efficient marijuana growers across the state. “The company achieves the savings to their cost of goods after that and the state has a lower total energy usage, so it’s a win-win.”

Bradley views the program as a sign of timely progress policy-wise for the state’s marijuana industry.

“Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational. Decade No. 2 of legalization here in Colorado needs to look fundamentally different than decade No. 1 from a policy perspective,” Bradley said.

The new program has been a work in progress over the last several years. The initiative is based off a 2020 pilot program as well as a 2018 state report on the Colorado cannabis industry’s energy use, needs and efficiency levels.

The state has also taken measures in recent years to promote the recycling of marijuana products.

The energy reduction program arrives after state marijuana sales experienced a significant downturn in 2022. Recreational and medical marijuana sales last year were almost a half billion dollars short in combined revenue compared with the previous year, according to data from the Colorado Department of Revenue.

Bradley said he does not believe the program is in response to the industry’s recent financial woes but said having access to financing will help growers afford to implement more energy-efficient practices.

“This program doesn’t just give growers the understanding of what they need to do, it actually gives them the means to do it,” Bradley said.

He said the program could have multiple positive effects both for the environment and the bottom line.

“It all does ultimately come down to sustainability, but it also comes down to being able to align company values with consumer values,” Bradley said. “Reducing energy is important for all industries, including the cannabis industry.”

Lee said she hopes Colorado can serve as an example for the nation in marijuana sustainability.

“We really want to be on the forefront of making changes in the cannabis industry,” Lee said. “Yes, we want to get federal legalization, we want federal backing, but it really starts at the state level. That’s how we’re really going to ignite change.”

The cannabis energy efficiency program is funded through a 2022 bill focused on investments in healthy air quality.

The CROP application opened on Feb. 15 and is available to all licensed marijuana growers in Colorado who do not have access to energy-efficiency support through their utility provider.

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