fbpx As Marijuana Industry In Oklahoma Booms, Rural Utilities Feel Growing Pains

As Marijuana Industry In Oklahoma Booms, Rural Utilities Feel Growing Pains

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man with his cannabis plants

The monthly water bill at Iris Farms is only about $40, each month but with lighting and fans, the electric bill can be as high as $3,000. (Phot by: Seth Bodine/Harvest Public Media)

Rural electric cooperatives are facing challenges that come with providing the necessary electricity for large indoor growing operations. Logan Pleasant, the director of operations at Lake Region Electric Cooperative, says there are more than a hundred growers that use their electric system.

“Most of these large growers that have come in have requested somewhere between a one- and two-megawatt load,” Pleasant says. “So if you add them all up, these growers are using as much power as a small city.”

Pleasant says they’ve started requesting that the indoor farms use electrical engineers and designers to get a more accurate picture of electric needs. That’s helped, but it has only gone so far, he says.

“Unfortunately, when the rubber meets the road, even though they’ve gone out and asked these engineering firms to help them figure out what they need, once they start construction, they’re not following the plans,” Pleasant says. “And that’s been kind of a challenge for us.”

If the requests keep up, Pleasant says the co-op will have to buy new substations and even install new power lines. That would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the price tag would be shared by each member of the co-op.

Greenhouses are showing up all over Hughes County in Oklahoma according to Sheldon Tatum, who is a rural water district manager in the county.Seth Bodine/Harvest Public Media

If the marijuana boom turns into a bust, that could leave other customers footing the bill.

“Many of these locations will either close up shop, or they will scale back significantly if the market wanes,” Pleasant says.

That’s a real concern.

“There are far too many growers. There are far too many dispensaries in that state, for the number of patients that there are,” says John Hudak, who studies marijuana policy as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

He says Oklahoma has the fewest restrictions on growing in the country.

“Which also means that your costs are naturally lowered, fewer regulations translate to fewer costs,” Hudak says. “So that’s something that I think a lot of growers will see as a positive.”

The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority says it is planning to work closely with the utilities and the state’s water and energy boards to find solutions.

For now, utility managers are faced with difficult decisions on how to meet the demand for water.

“Do I want to go borrow a million dollars and develop another well, so I can have more quantity to provide? And then we don’t know if they’re [marijuana farms] going to be here in three years, five years,” Tatum asks. “And I’m carrying a million-dollar mortgage for 40 years? Is it fair for existing customers to bear that burden? So there’s a lot of questions that come into play on how things are managed, how things are operated.”

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