July 28, 2021

New Mexico’s climate may lead to a smaller carbon footprint when growing cannabis

When the New Mexico Legislature was considering a bill that eventually became the Cannabis Regulation Act, one of the major topics of concern was water use. Ultimately, lawmakers agreed to require cannabis growers to prove they had legal access to water.

But one issue that was not addressed, at least not at length, was how much power it would take to operate possibly hundreds of grow operations around the state. A study released in March of this year showed that as states move towards legalizing adult-use cannabis, greenhouse gases and energy consumption have gone up. The study also showed that some of the higher energy-use areas were in the southwest and midwest regions of the U.S. And while state regulators do not have any specific energy restrictions for cannabis growers, two people familiar with New Mexico’s cannabis industry said the state’s climate will likely play a key role in keeping the carbon footprint of cannabis small. 

The study from earlier this year found that high levels of greenhouse gases and excessive energy use comes from indoor growing, where climate control is reliant on fans, high powered lights and manufactured carbon dioxide. 

A spokesperson for the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department, which oversees the state’s Cannabis Control Division said there are currently no restrictions or guidance for energy consumption.

Susan Torres, a spokesperson for the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, said that even though there are no current restrictions on cannabis energy use, the department will “look for ways to monitor [growers’] energy impact on the state.” 

“It’s important to note that the industry’s carbon footprint is tied to the electricity mix and New Mexico is already on a path to zero-carbon with the passage of the Energy Transition Act,” Torres said. “New Mexico has already begun to encourage local businesses to install solar panels through initiatives like the Solar Market Development Tax Credit that aim to make solar installations more affordable.”

But Wylie Atherton, the director of cultivation at medical cannabis producer Seven Point Farm, said New Mexico’s sunny days and overall climate make the state a good place to utilize outdoor grows, opposed to indoor grows that require more supplemental lighting, dehumidifiers and artificial wind. 

“Here in New Mexico specifically, we’re really well-suited to have a significantly lower footprint for energy usage,” Atherton said. 

Atherton said after a nation-wide crackdown on outdoor grows in the 1970s, many people began moving their illegal plants indoors, which in turn created a need for an artificial environment that mimicked conditions outside. He said indoor growing can provide a “pretty fine degree of control for the cultivator” and that after decades of growing inside out of fear of severe criminal penalties, some New Mexico growers are shifting to growing in greenhouses or fully outdoors. 

Atherton also said indoor grows are far from traditional farming. 

“[Indoor grows] are a lot more like a data center than they are like a farm,” he said. “They have to light every square foot that they have built into their warehouse or whatever their production facility looks like. Every square foot that they’re lighting is energy use, and not just for lighting, but for environmental control.”

But even in New Mexico, it’s not feasible to perpetually grow completely outdoors. Shorter light periods and freezing temperatures in the winter have pushed many grows into greenhouses, with minimal supplemental lighting, Atherton said.  

But even if growers of what Atheron called a “light-hungry” plant are less than conscientious about energy use and its impact on climate change, money may drive them outdoors. 

Duke Rodriguez, the president and CEO of Ultra Health, said it doesn’t make sense to operate a large scale grow in the confines of a warehouse.   

“In the early days we started off with a warehouse-style grow, which is taking a commercial building and putting lights into it, and it is a bad model,” Rodriguez said. “It started that way in Colorado, and they learned very quickly that it’s not economical.”

But, Rodriguez said, it is more feasible for smaller grow operations and he anticipates many businesses with microbusiness licenses will opt for an indoor grow. 

But increasing the scale of operations, Rodriguez said, will ultimately be difficult for those who decide to grow inside. 

[Outdoor growing] has the ability of being scalable,” Rodriguez said. “If you use a building in an urban area, you’re pretty confined to that building size.” 

But it’s still unclear exactly how big New Mexico’s cannabis industry will be. Currently there are a few more than 30 licensed medical cannabis producers in the state with varying sizes of grow sites. State regulators have until January 1, 2022 to start issuing licenses and legal sales, by law, must start no later than April 1, 2022. It will likely take months worth of data before there’s a clear picture of the impact cannabis has on energy use or greenhouse gasses in New Mexico. 

But Rodriguez predicts that indoor grows will be a thing of the past in several years. 

“Within a decade, and it could be as soon as five years, I think it is highly likely that you’re not going to have a single warehouse grow in New Mexico.”