Pot growers taking a hit from electricity shortage

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Published Sunday, Feb. 11, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

Pot growers taking a hit from electricity shortage

BY PATRICK MAY Mercury News EUREKA -- The marijuana growers of Humboldt County already have enough to worry about -- cops dropping in by helicopter to trash their plants, stoned-out neighbors ripping them off and nasty rainstorms washing out their roads. Now, just as winter's indoor-growing season demands more electricity than ever, here comes the state's power burnout.

Many of the big-time growers have moved indoors and off the PG&E grid, producing their own diesel-generated power to avoid detection. But smaller entrepreneurs -- some of them growing marijuana semi-legally for medicinal use -- remain plugged in.

And by using 1,000-watt bulbs to trick plants into flowering, they're getting hit with power bills nearly as high as the folks smoking their product.

``We already have issues with law enforcement and issues with patients,'' said Dennis Turner, executive director of an Arcata cannabis club that distributes cut-rate medicinal marijuana to 110 clients. ``The last thing we need now is an energy crisis.''

Ever since growers began moving indoors to evade the aerial surveillance of their open-air crops by police, the pot-growing industry has displayed an incredible appetite for kilowatts.

``Power is probably the biggest single cost for these guys,'' said sheriff's Deputy Randy Garcia, with the department's four-man anti-drug unit. ``They're burning 1,000-watt high-pressure sodium lights for 12 or 18 hours a day, and they're doing it 10 months of the year. That calls for either a lot of electricity or a lot of diesel.''

The previous day, Garcia's crew had raided an operation where 88 lights were used to grow 3,500 plants, an amount worth $400,000 cut and dried. One estimate put the cost of running those lights at $4,000 a month.

``They need power for lights and ballast, and they need power to run fans that help make the stalks stronger,'' he said. ``The more power they use, the better the quality of the product.''

Growers get creative

That puts medicinal marijuana growers in a bind. One farmer who supplies the clinic with affordable weed with names like White Rhino and Blue Boy said most patients are indigent and need cheap pot to ease back pain or to stave off alcoholic relapse.

``We do our own grow and cut out the middle man to get decent prices for our patients,'' said the grower, who declined to give his name. ``But if electrical costs keep going up, it'll have a tremendous impact.''

For growers on the grid, sharp spikes on a residential meter are a red flag to PG&E and an invitation for trouble. So they get creative. Sheriff's Sgt. Wayne Hanson recalled one bust where the grower had installed an electrical bypass device -- the PG&E meter remained stable, even though the grower was burning up a mint's worth of power.

``By the time we raided the place,'' he said, ``PG&E figured the grower had stolen $800,000 worth of electricity over several years. It's just like shoplifting, and the costs were being passed on to law-abiding customers.''

Gradually, many of the large-scale growers moved inside windowless warehouses in the woods or fake houses, complete with kids' toys out on the lawn. ``The police definitely pushed us indoors,'' said one off-the-grid grower, showing off several hundred lush green pot plants inside his mountain-top home outside Garberville. ``It was great growing it out in the open. But they ruined it for us.''

Still, they've apparently adapted to life without PG&E.

Eureka police Sgt. Pat Freese recalled one raid that netted a diesel generator big enough to power a small hospital. Hanson and Garcia, whose unit seized 43,000 pot plants last year worth an estimated $14.5 million, showed visitors their storage lot crammed with confiscated electrical equipment: military-styled generators, one of them painted in camouflage; grow lights and hoods, bulbs, ballast, and miles of new electrical wire.

Grave physical risks

But there is, said Garcia, a very steep downside to making one's own power: electrocution. The police training manual, in fact, shows photos of dead growers, zapped as they tended their plants. ``You'd have to be a PG&E-type electrician to set up some of these systems,'' he said. ``This is not something you'd hand off to a Kmart clerk.''

Some growers may have moved off the grid, but their power costs are still off the charts: A 1,000-watt bulb costs $50 a month to run 18 hours a day, said Bryn Coriell of American Hydroponics, an Arcata firm that sells equipment for growing tomatoes and lettuce indoors and without soil. By contrast, a similar bulb hooked up to a generator can cost $60 or $70 a month in diesel.

The current energy crisis touches this multimillion-dollar industry in other curious ways. One grower pointed out that as the cost of electricity goes up in California, Canadian power has become relatively cheaper each month. The result, they say, is an unfair marijuana trade imbalance.

``The growers up there are on the grid with cheap Canadian hydroelectric power,'' said the grower. ``So we've seen a steady rise in imports from Canada, and that's caused the bottom to drop out of the U.S. market.''

Some off-grid pot growers also fret that diesel costs could rise, cutting further into their admittedly fat profits. Meanwhile, growers on the grid, just like residential consumers and businesses up and down the Golden State, are turning to conservation to help them weather the storm.

``This crisis is an unexpected factor that we need to deal with,'' said Turner at the cannabis club in Arcata. ``Some of our growers have already put a non-peak-hour timer on their grow lights so they're on during the night when electricity is cheaper.''

After all, he said, ``as long as those lights are on for 12 hours a day, it doesn't matter to the pot plant which 12 hours they are.''


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), February 11, 2001


EUREKA! The smoking gun to California's
power woes. I mean smoking pipe ::::-

-- spider (spider0@usa.net), February 11, 2001.

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