Indoor Pot Farms Tax Power Grid

A hundred females ripe for sex languish impatiently in a brightly-lit room waiting for a male, any male, to filter through that door and satisfy their needs. If only a male would come. They never do.

Such are the exasperated lives of indoor-grown marijuana plants. The only commercially useful plants are females, so the males are aborted, before they can impregnate females with their pollen. As they mature, these frustrated ladies still produce an enticing perfume, hoping to attract the male pollen -- the chemical THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), quite buzz-inducing and quite illegal, which is why the lusty lasses must be hidden indoors.

Unlike their wilder outdoor sisters, these females, kept on the vegetable equivalent of a tanning bed, use up an inordinate amount of electrical energy. Energy that could otherwise be provided by the most renewable power available: the sun.

In an era when outdoor pot is a pariah -- the target of multi-million-dollar eradication programs -- indoor growing operations have flourished, creating an electricity-sucking enterprise locked away in barns and closets and backrooms. And this has happened at a time when the nation's electric grid has trouble keeping the juice on for folks who don't have the solar alternative, from big factories to the computer power needed to write this story. Marijuana's move indoors is one more factor stressing out the electric system.

So far this year, the Drug Enforcement Agency has seized 80,000 indoor-grown plants, busting 1,000 "operations," according to a DEA source. Doing the math at 20 plants per light running 16 hours a day, leads to the monthly consumption of 2 million kilowatt hours -- about the hourly output of a very large power plant. And that's only what the federal government has discovered.

Grow lights suck 1,100 watts apiece out of the system. Compare that with your average 60-watt reading bulb. An average residential consumption is 500 kilowatt hours a month, according to Pacific Gas & Electric. A 10-lamp operation would consume over 3,000-kilowatt hours a month running a minimum of 12 hours a day. Bob Kinosian, analyst with the California's state-run consumer organization, Office of Ratepayer Advocates, estimates the lamps run more like 16 hours a day. A 60-lamp operation running 16 hours a day would suck up a stupendous 30,000 kilowatt-hours in a month. And you think your electric bills are high? Still, the operations can produce at least two or three pounds per light, according to Kinosian -- more than enough to pay the utility.

The leading states for indoor growing operations, according to the DEA, are California, Florida, Oregon and Wisconsin. And, officers are finding more and more indoor grows every year, leading to the assumption that marijuana producers and aficionados are forgoing free-range pot grown from renewable solar power for the safer buzz of "kept" sinsemillia. Of all the marijuana seized in 1997, only 6 percent was from indoor grows. That went up to 16 percent in 1999, according to the DEA.

High electricity use isn't the only environmental problem associated with indoor marijuana growing. In the fabled "emerald triangle" in Northwestern California, long-time outdoor growers now fearful of well-funded government raids on gardens have also moved inside. But, in the rural triangle (Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties) many folks interested in the trade are "off-grid." They don't have a hook up to the local utility and don't want one.

So, instead of hooking up to polluting power plants they go to the local hardware store and buy a generator or three in order to fuel the voracious grow lights. Unfortunately for the environment, generators run on foul-smelling, air- and water-polluting diesel fuel.

Wayne Hanson, Humboldt County sergeant in charge of the drug enforcement unit, swears that diesel-fired generators fuel almost all the indoor grows he trips over on his way to busting the folks still growing outdoors. He mentioned that in one case, in trying to apprehend an outdoor grower suspect who fled into the woods on foot, he knocked on three doors of the suspect's remote neighbors. All had indoor grow operations. The cops declined running after the moving suspect, instead busting the homebodies with grow lights.

"Diesel fuel is dumped on the ground all the time. Seventy-five percent of the time [that I bust growers] I have to call the Environmental Health Department and Fish & Game to respond to diesel spills," Hanson explained of the fuel's hazards. Any spills or dumping can get into the growers' and their neighbors' legitimate gardens and drinking water, as remote households use the nearest creek or spring for daily needs. In addition, there's the potential for fish kill.

While in remote areas, diesel generators also add to air emissions and noise pollution. Air pollution is roundly ignored. Growers tend to try to muffle the sound of generators, though, with hay bales and the like to lessen suspicion.

The use of generators is winked at in the off-grid hills. Some actually are used to fuel televisions and refrigeration, but there's also a brisk business in delivering fuel up gated dirt roads with a handful of dollars tipped to the delivery driver to keep quiet about the generators' whereabouts.

This energy consumption, resultant pollution and pressure on the grid seems rather absurd given the last few years of state and local votes favoring some form of legalization. In the most recent election, for instance, California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah passed measures to approve limited growing or reduce penalties for marijuana possession.

"It's the insanity of prohibition. Every citizen is subsidizing an expanding electric grid. It's completely unnecessary when it could all be fueled by the sun," said one grower source who, understandably, asked to remain anonymous.

J.A. Savage is associate editor of California Energy Markets.

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