There was much buzz in Bozeman earlier this month at the “On the Rise” economic summit hosted by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Gov. Greg Gianforte. Business leaders from across the state gathered to share ideas and discuss the challenges standing in the way of economic development in Big Sky Country.
The event also served as a platform to announce new business developments on the horizon — including one project eyed for Lake County. Alongside investor Kevin O’Leary of “Shark Tank” fame, Gianforte announced preliminary plans for a new cryptocurrency data center to be constructed in Polson, potentially in partnership with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
The 50 megawatt data center, spearheaded by cryptocurrency mining company Bitzero, would utilize hydropower from SKQ Dam — operated by Energy Keepers Inc., a corporation of CSKT — fulfilling the company’s zero-carbon mandate.
When asked about the project, CSKT spokesman Shane A. Morigeau described discussions as very preliminary at this point, saying the Tribal Council was doing their “due diligence.”
That’s good to hear, as important details about the project remain thin — such as site location, potential jobs created, and infrastructure and community impacts.
Cryptocurrency mining requires a massive amount of energy to power the computer processing centers. According to the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index, crypto mining currently consumes about 128.5 terawatt-hours of electricity globally each year, or as much as Sweden or Argentina consumes in a year.
On a local scale, the Polson data center’s 50 megawatts usage would be about a quarter of the 208 wagawatts produced by SKQ Dam. One megawatt can power about 750 homes, which means the data center will use as much power as 37,500 Northwest Montana homes.
Where will the energy lost to the data center come from? It’s an important question to ask, particularly when the company is touting its renewable energy mandate.
There are other potential impacts that Lake County residents must consider, as well.
Crypto mining is a noisy endeavor, with huge fans required to cool the whirring computer processors performing complex calculations. Some describe it as a constant low hum.
The residents of Limestone, Tennessee can tell you all about it, after a new bitcoin mining company opened a data center there last year.
“We couldn’t have people over to gather in our front yard because we could hardly hear one another talking,” Preston Holley, whose home sits across the street from the mine, told The Washington Post for a story earlier this year.
The center is also an eyesore in a once quiet, rural part of the Appalachian Mountains, residents said.
One county commissioner there told The Post he regretted his vote to allow the mining operation.
“It looks like a German POW camp,” Harris told The Post, which described the data center as being surrounded by “barriers, cameras and fencing topped with razor wire.”
Missoula County faced similar issues with a short-lived crypto-mining operation in Bonner, where complaints about noise and gluttonous energy consumption were common.
The number of permanent jobs created by these mining operations is questionable, too, as not many workers are typically needed to manage an autonomous data center. For example, a new 100 megawatt data center in Kentucky — twice the size of the Polson proposal — only created 15 jobs.
Of course, some jobs are better than no jobs, and economic prosperity in Lake County certainly is important.
But at what cost?
It’s a question worth mulling for the CSKT Tribal Council and Lake County Commission as more details about this possible project come to light.