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The thought of marijuana cultivation brings to mind images of the a “Back to the Land” Movement, and perhaps of a philosophy that eschews waste and aims for practices that are more in tune with the environment.

But the marijuana business has a dirty secret: it is likely that illicit marijuana grow ops use 40 per cent more electricity than metal mining in Canada today.

The illicit cultivation of marijuana in Canada, in fact, is one of the single most energy intensive sectors in any industry in the nation, legal or not. More than 50,000 decentralized grows nationwide pack high wattage lamps into basements, sheds, and bunkers to fuel the domestic demand for billions of grams of the plant per year. Air exchange, cooling, dehumidification, and other infrastructure converge to demand as much as three per cent of all of the electricity generation nationwide.

Aggregate electricity production in Canada totals around 2300 petajoules per year. Electricity demand for the Metal Ore Mining Industry in Canada was estimated by the Canadian Industrial Energy End-Use Data and Analysis Centre at Simon Fraser University to be ~50 petajoules in 2014. If cannabis cultivation in Canada uses three per cent of our aggregate energy production, then demand from cannabis cultivation activity equates to over 70 petajoules every year, 40 per cent more than the mining industry.

From the perspective of individual consumers, a single Cannabis cigarette represents about 10 pounds of CO2 emissions

Dr. Evan Mills Ph.D., Researcher and Senior Scientist at the University of California Berkely, estimates the annual energy expenditure for cannabis cultivation in the United States at $6 billion USD per year. “From the perspective of individual consumers, a single Cannabis cigarette represents about 10 pounds of CO2 emissions,” Mills suggests. This corresponds to one per cent of national electricity consumption in the United States, or about three per cent of all electricity use in California.

Canada likely consumes more cannabis per capita than the US, and that consumption translates into higher production per capita as well. Estimates from the CBC suggest 20 per cent of Canadians consumed cannabis in 2015, whereas in the US this number is closer to nine per cent. In Canada, more than 700 metric tons of cannabis are consumed each year, and even more is produced due to cannabis that grown for export and destroyed by disease, mould, and pests.

Although substantial energy and cost saving technologies, such as greenhouses, exist in the Canadian marketplace, the legal medical marijuana industry has been slow to adopt them. Producers under the Access to Medical Cannabis Production Regulations (ACMPR) have generally opted instead for more traditional indoor cultivation infrastructure, albeit at an unprecedentedly large scale. Canada hosts some of the largest legal cannabis production facilities on Earth, and as energy prices trend upwards, the shift to more efficient infrastructure will become a market driven reality.

Today, mid size indoor Licensed Producers of medical cannabis in Canada spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars per month on electricity. As more firms enter the market, the drive to conserve costs and become more efficient with operational expenditure will separate the winners from those who think in the short term. Technologies like LED lighting and advanced dehumidification are showing early promise, but the best cost saving infrastructure needs to be engineered from first principles, before construction begins.

Examples from industrial agriculture of tomatoes, peppers, and bedding plants have demonstrated for decades that the most effective way to produce consistent and environmentally controlled agricultural outcomes relies on a simple technology: greenhouses. Sunlight provides a higher intensity and wider spectrum than any artificial bulb we have developed to date, and it costs nothing. Plants have thrived under sunlight for billions of years, and there is no more effective solar panel than the broad leaf of a cannabis plant. You don’t have to subscribe to an explicit social mandate to invest in #sungrown cannabis, you just have to be economically rational.