PUD won’t say no to selling electricity to pot growers

By Allison Arthur of the Leader
Posted 3/17/15

Marijuana operations can get electricity from Jefferson County Public Utility District (PUD), but such operations shouldn’t ask for financial help to go greener with conservation …

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PUD won’t say no to selling electricity to pot growers

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Marijuana operations can get electricity from Jefferson County Public Utility District (PUD), but such operations shouldn’t ask for financial help to go greener with conservation projects.

“With the conservation money we get from the Bonneville Power Administration, we can’t provide any of that to marijuana growers,” said PUD manager Jim Parker. “They’ve made a very clear distinction on that,” he said of the federal agency that sells wholesale power to the PUD.

Parker said a PUD customer had called not long ago about getting rebate help with buying LED lighting for a grow operation of some kind, and the caller was told that wasn’t possible because of BPA policies.

The ins and outs of the PUD’s policies and rates are being discussed because, while recreational pot was legalized in the state under voter-approved Initiative 502, marijuana remains illegal by federal law.

And all power distributed in East Jefferson County is produced by that federal agency.

For clarity, PUD Commissioner Barney Burke had asked the district’s attorney, Malcolm Harris, to weigh in on the PUD's authority to regulate cannabis growing or charge higher rates for customers engaged in such operations.

In a March 3 email to PUD commissioners, Harris wrote, “I do not believe there is any statutory or other authority for the PUD to prohibit or regulate the use of land within the PUD for the growing of cannabis or any other specific land use activity. The control, regulation and location of cannabis-growing operations are matters for the County to decide, pursuant to its authority to exercise police power and to regulate land use.”

Further, Harris said, there also is no law that allows the PUD to impose higher rates upon customers who grow marijuana. He cited RCW 54.24.080, which states that rates need to be fair and nondiscriminatory.

Burke said he suspects there are PUDs that have tried to prevent marijuana operations, but he agrees with Harris that “PUDs don’t have the right to regulate land use.”

Another issue to come in the future may be whether there should be a separate rate for marijuana operations if they demand more power, for example.

“If marijuana production is a different power demand, I’m happy to have a separate rate,” Burke said.

For now, Burke said, Parker is right that BPA has said it won't restrict the use of electricity for marijuana operations, but “it won’t allow us to use any conservation funds for operations.”

Burke also noted that politics change and BPA’s policy today may not be BPA’s policy tomorrow.

RATE STUDY RELATIONSHIP

EES Consulting, which is doing a rate study for the PUD, had also written a letter to the board in February offering its services should the board want to do a new rate schedule for cannabis producing and or processing operations.

“Because cannabis is classified as a controlled substance under federal law, there is some uncertainty regarding whether or not BPA may, at some point, prohibit the use of federal power to serve cannabis-related operations,” EES President Gary Saleba wrote to Parker in a Feb. 5, 2015 letter.

He noted that the Bureau of Reclamation recently determined that irrigation water supplied from federal projects cannot be sold to or used by these operations “due to their criminal status under federal law.”

In the meantime, Parker said, a PUD in Mason County has been grappling with its rates for marijuana because it is on the edge of moving into a higher rate classification for federal power.

Jefferson County also has a cap of an average of 48 megawatts of power throughout the year. Right now, Jefferson County is at the average megawatt mark of 46, Parker said.

Because large-scale marijuana grow operations can use a lot of power for humidifiers, wind blowers and timed lights, the PUD in Mason County has some concerns that it will go over its cap and that’s why it’s been looking at a new rate for marijuana operations, Parker said.

Parker said he doubted Jefferson County land-use rules would allow any big buildings like the ones being envisioned elsewhere in the state that are of concern.

Commissioners have taken no action on the subject other than to seek the advice of Harris and discuss it briefly, Parker said.

OPERATIONS

As of March 10, 2015 in Jefferson County, three of 29 producer applicants’ licenses were active, five of 28 processor applicants’ licenses were active, and two of 16 retailer applicants’ licenses were active.

The original six-month moratorium begun on Aug. 11, 2014 held up some 19 marijuana businesses – whether planning to grow, process or both. Four of those are located on rural commercial land.

The remaining 15 are on rural residential land, eight of which had plans to set up on more than 5 acres, meaning they are now allowed to move forward under a new, four-month moratorium set to expire on June 11.

(Leader staff writer Nicholas Johnson contributed to this story.)

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