Missoula Co. invites public to talk about cryptocurrency

Missoula County officials want the public’s input on how the county should move forward with the new industry of cryptocurrency mining.

Cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, is electronic. It’s mined by computers solving complex mathematical problems. The more people mining it the harder the puzzles get. Miners are rewarded with new Bitcoins proportional to the amount of computing power they donate to the network. That’s why Bitcoin mines use a lot of computers and a lot of energy.

“This is such a new industry, of course, and growing so rapidly that I think that commissioners thought it was worth taking a closer look at what impacts it could potentially have in Missoula County,” said Diana Maneta, energy conservation and sustainability coordinator for Missoula County.

She says Montana has a prime climate for cryptocurrency mining because of low electricity rates and cooler temperatures. Mining cryptocurrency uses a lot of computers and electricity, and when they run for 24 hours they get hot, and cooling equipment can get pricy.

"We are learning more and more from neighboring states on the impacts that are occurring and want to make sure that we protect Missoula to the extent that is necessary," said Jennie Dixon, planner for the Missoula County community planning services.

Dixon and Maneta identified five impacts -- noise, greenhouse gases, electrical system reliability and safety, fire and e-waste. You can read more about those here.

NorthWestern Energy officials said cryptocurrency mining operations don’t usually buy electricity from them, but they do use NorthWestern Energy’s infrastructure to get the electricity. Spokesman Butch Larcombe said they’ve had 25 to 30 potential cryptocurrency operators contact them, but many may not follow through because it’s expensive to hook up.

"We determine what kind of system upgrades we might need to make, and then we come up with a price and tell them, ‘This is how much it's going to cost to hook onto our system’ and our goal there is to make sure that they pick up the costs and not our other customers," said Larcombe.

Right now NorthWestern Energy has two cryptocurrency operations on the system -- one in Bonner and one in Butte. They’re also working to potentially set up two others in Frenchtown and Hamilton.

One Montana utility is not hooking up any cryptocurrency operations -- at least for now. Flathead Electric Co-op issued a moratorium for at least six months but maybe longer. They say it’s because analyzing the loads takes significant time and staff resources.

To put it in perspective, Flathead Electric says cryptocurrency requests have wanted up to 300 megawatts. That’s at any given moment and is enough to power the entire Flathead Valley. In fact it’s almost the max capacity Flathead Electric can carry. They say just one megawatt is enough to power 730 homes.

That’s why Missoula County officials want the public’s input on how to move forward.

"I think that the most important thing I hope people will consider is the potential for growth in this industry and what that looks like on a global scale, a national scale, in neighboring states and what it could look like in our county,” said Maneta.

Those talks will be all summer long, with the first one Thursday at 2 p.m.

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