The pot industry will not be a mellow new player on the province’s power grid.
Indeed, the energy munched by the fledgling cannabis-growing business is expected to rise by 1,250 per cent in Ontario over the next five years, according to a recent study by the province’s Independent Electricity System Operator.
“We’re seeing absolutely a significant increase in electricity demand because of the greenhouse growth in Ontario,” says Terry Young, vice-president of policy, engagement and innovation at the IESO.
“If you forecast out five years, what we’re seeing is over a thousand per cent growth in electricity to a sector,” says Young, whose Crown corporation released a study on electrical use by cannabis growers in October.
At a projected 1.258 terawatt-hour (TWh) consumption by 2024, pot producers will suck up far more energy than the 0.8 TWh the province’s auto sector used in 2018.
Last year, cannabis production in Ontario — which has the country’s largest capacity — consumed just 0.09 TWh. (Recreational cannabis was legalized in Canada on Oct. 17, 2018.)
But in the Leamington area alone, Young says cannabis and other greenhouse production will increase overall electricity demand by 200 per cent by 2026 — a surge that would require a new transmission line be built.
Total electricity usage in the province is 140 TWh a year, with the mining industry, at 5.06 TWh usage, being by far the largest consumer.
The study, which was supported by Enbridge Gas Inc. and the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, says such rapid growth in electricity demand could be mitigated by a switch to LED lighting in an industry where light duration and intensity is a key driver of product quantity and quality.
“Our study showed the potential to address some of this, to not get to that … terawatt level,” Young says. “If you think about high-pressure sodium lights, which have historically been used, if you switch to LED they’re going to consume 50 per cent less electricity than the alternative.”
That cannabis will be a high-energy industry comes as little surprise, Young says, pointing out that spikes in electricity usage at a given location were often the clues that led police to illicit grow-ops in the past.
(The IESO says it does not track energy usage at the “granular level” that illicit grow-ops would consume it, and thus would not speculate on whether legal production usage will surpass it.)
Though LED lighting shows great promise in pot production, the scientific jury is still out on its effectiveness, says University of Guelph horticulturalist and cannabis expert Youbin Zheng.
Zheng says that unlike traditional agricultural lighting — which accounts for 60 to 70 per cent of electricity usage in the industry — LEDs can produce different colour combinations that can be adjusted to maximize the growth and quality of cannabis crops.
“However, there is not enough scientific information out there (that) can guide growers on how to utilize LEDs in improving cannabis quality and yield,” says Zheng, whose lab is helping to study the issue. “Also, not all the LEDs are the same in terms of energy-use efficiency and spectral quality.”
Young says tradition and capital costs are the biggest impediments to LED transformations, however.
“These are the kind of things we’re working with the industry on,” he says. “We right now have a call-out to the indoor agricultural sector and we’re looking … to help fund proposals that would be aimed at reducing demand.”
The IESO’s Save Energy Retrofit Program can offset as much as half the cost of new lighting and other energy-saving proposals for projects to be completed before the end of 2021.
In Alberta, the licensed grower Freedom Cannabis Inc. has addressed some of its large energy demands by covering the roof of its 125,000-square-foot plant in the town of Acheson, just west of Edmonton, with solar panels.
“We’re very focused on sustainability,” says company head Troy Dezwart. “We knew that the cannabis industry and some of the operations consume a lot of power.
“So (we thought), what can we do to reduce our carbon footprint and how can we also at the same time find ways to possibly impact our operating costs.”
The 115,000 square feet of solar panels cost $2.6 million, with $1 million coming in the form of a provincial grant. The array, which went online the week before last , will produce about 1.8 million megawatts of electricity and will initially cover about 50 to 60 per cent of the plant’s power needs.
That will drop to about 10 per cent of supply needs as the plant is built out. But Dezwart says the system will pay for itself over the next 15 years in energy cost savings.
“We knew getting into this that the equipment necessary to grow cannabis would require a lot of power, so the writing was on the wall,” he says.
Dezwart also says the company’s future expansions will also use LED lighting to grow its plants.
But Young, whose organization manages the province’s power system, says Ontario’s grid can easily handle the increased consumption caused by the cannabis industry as it builds out over the next five years.
“We have an adequate supply of electricity for the next couple of decades,” he says.
And because of its use of nuclear, hydro, wind and solar power production, the province’s electrical system is already 93 per cent carbon-free.
“We have a very clean electricity system from a carbon perspective,” he says. “So as we look at this, rather than bringing in new sources of supply … we’re focusing our efforts on trying to increase the efficiency of these facilities.”