Will Oakland's Giant Pot Farms Be Green? 

The massive indoor medical cannabis grows will consume huge amounts of electricity. But will the city make sure they don't add to greenhouse-gas emissions?

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Cannabis is usually considered to be a "green" product, but when Oakland's four giant indoor medical marijuana growing operations receive permits early next year, they could become the largest energy consumers in the city. They also could become the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Oakland — unless the city tightly regulates them.

No one knows for sure precisely how much energy the four indoor facilities will use, because they've never before been constructed on such a massive scale in the United States. But the intense lighting required to grow marijuana indoors in an industrialized setting — up to two football fields in size or larger — is expected to use so much electricity that outfitting them with solar panels likely will do little to offset their total energy consumption.

In an interview, Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, the co-author of the large cannabis farm law, said the city plans to address the energy-consumption issue as it develops administrative guidelines in the months ahead. She said Oakland likely will mandate energy-efficient lighting, give preference to bidders who put solar panels on the roofs of their warehouses, and require that the farms offer "community benefits" packages to the city.

Kaplan said she did not include such mandates in the new law approved by the council last week because of a request by the Oakland City Attorney's Office. The city attorney noted that if the city decided to later adjust the mandates — to either strengthen or weaken them or add new ones — it would require a cumbersome process of getting the council to reapprove the law. As a result, the city plans to proffer a set of administrative regulations that will govern the pot farms.

The Berkeley City Council, by contrast, decided to include basic environmental mandates on its new large medical cannabis growing operations should voters approve them on the November ballot. The council has asked voters to approve six large medical cannabis growing operations in West Berkeley. Each would be up to 30,000 square-feet in size, or about two-thirds the size of a football field.

The farms, however, could become bigger if two or more of the growing operations combine into a single giant space, said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. In that case, the industrialized grows could rival the ones coming to Oakland. "They're going to require a huge amount of energy," Bates noted. "They're going to be a huge drain on our electrical system."

Because solar panels are expected to have so little impact on energy use at the indoor farms, the Berkeley council decided to include in the ballot measure a mandate that the growing operations "provide for an energy offset" equal to the amount of extra electricity the farms consume compared to other similarly sized industrial uses. Bates explained that the farms will be required to pay into a fund that Berkeley will use to plant trees and finance energy-efficiency measures in low-income residences throughout the city. That way, the new pot farms won't increase Berkeley's overall greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Berkeley council also wrote into its ballot measure a provision requiring the large farms to "use organic methods in cultivation and processing to the maximum extent possible." It's a nasty little secret in the medical marijuana world that many growers spray their plants liberally with pesticides — not unlike much the rest of the US agricultural industry.

Like Oakland, Berkeley plans to solicit bids for the new cultivation operations, and Bates said that the city will give preference to bidders who promise to employ organic growing methods. Kaplan said Oakland also plans to give preference to organic operations. The city also plans to require catchment systems for wastewater runoff, she said.

Jeff Wilcox, founder of AgraMed, a nonprofit that plans to bid to become one of Oakland's big growers, said his warehouse next to Interstate 880 will be LEED certified. He also plans to install solar panels, possibly use an onsite natural-gas generator, and stay away from pesticides. "The goal," he said, "should be to do as little damage as possible to the environment."

Berkeley, meanwhile, also plans to encourage bidders to consider outdoor growing operations that use virtually no energy at all. Bates believes that the rooftops of large warehouses could be suitable for big grows. Oakland, by contrast, plans to discourage outdoor grows because of crime concerns.

Many medical cannabis growers prefer cultivating indoors because they have much more control over growing operations. Nearly all Oakland producers grow indoors. They also believe it gives them a more marketable product, said Dale Gieringer of NORML, who supports outdoor growing. "Indoor growing uses a ton of energy," he said, "but everybody in the business tells me you can't sell outdoor pot — that it doesn't look good enough; you can't get the little bud package that looks cute."

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