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Bonner Bitcoin data center noise a continuing concern

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Cryptocurrency mining requires massive collections of servers, which use large amounts of power, are a challenge to keep cool and also can produce high noise levels.

BONNER — The fans still hum and neighbors are still bummed as controversy over the noise from a cryptocurrency server farm on the former Stimson Lumber mill site drones on.

A representative of Project Spokane LLC; a mill owner; county commissioners, state legislators, and a wildlife biologist from the University of Montana are among those expected to be on hand Monday night at a town meeting at Bonner School.

The special meeting of the Bonner Milltown Community Council starts at 7 p.m. in the school cafeteria.

At issue are the 450 fans that Project Spokane has installed to keep its 12,000 computer servers from overheating inside the former plywood planer and storage building along Highway 200. They’re key to mining Bitcoins and other electronic money at a volume higher than any place else in North America, according to a Missoula Independent report in late January.

To some critics, it’s the decibel level that’s a nuisance. Most, however, cite the incessant drone and its invariable frequency that plays different tricks on different ears.

“Every month we have the same conversation where new folks show up and talk about what they’re experiencing and their challenges,” said Olivia Riutta, who chairs the community council. “As a community council it’s clear that people don’t understand the work that’s been happening around mitigation efforts, so they’re going to come prepared to give an update on what has happened since the issue began and folks started reporting it.”

That’s been over a year now, though it’s almost two years ago since Bonner Property Development leased space in the immense building to Project Spokane.

Co-owner Steve Nelson regularly attends the community council meetings and he addressed, again, a barrage of questions and concerns in January.

The noise emanating from the data center violates no ordinances or statutes, Nelson pointed out.

“Having said that, we do feel a responsibility here, at least a commitment, to try to do something for the community” about the noise, he said. “Project Spokane feels the same way. We realize that this is an issue. It’s just not simple to solve.”

Nelson will explain Monday what he and business partner Mike Boehme, along with project managers from Project Spokane, have done so far to mitigate the noise issue. They’ll be reimbursed by the cryptocurrency company, but the mill owners have shelled out close to $15,000. They hired an acoustics expert last year to quantify the problem and recommend a solution.

“His belief was by changing fan blades, the configuration of the blades and maybe the number of blades it could reduce the sound significantly,” Nelson said.

Sean Connolly of Big Sky Acoustics in Helena ciphered the specifications that would be needed. They were sent off to two companies in the Midwest to test them.

“They finally came up with a nine-blade fan and said this should reduce the noise eight or nine decibels, which is significant,” Nelson said.

Project Spokane ordered 10 nine-blade new fans to place inside the building and 20 more to install on the roof, at what Nelson said was a cost of $2,500-$3,000 each. The old ones run in the $800-$1,000 range.

The lower fans were easily installed and cut the decibel level noticeably, Nelson said, even with all the hundreds of others running as well.

Only one new roof fan is in place.

“The reason we haven’t done the other 19 is it’s slick up there in the winter, so from a safety standpoint we’ll wait until the weather changes,” said Nelson.

A snag was encountered with the one that was installed. A “clamshell” on top the cowling is designed to keep rain and snow out. The recommended speed of the new fan wasn’t pushing air enough to open the clamshell completely.

“So we’re trying to figure that out. If you go a little faster you’re going to have more noise. How much more we don’t know. Until we can get those other fans installed and increase the RPMs, we won’t know for sure the level of (noise) reduction,” Nelson said.

Connolly, an acoustical engineer, mapped decibel levels from five stations around the mill, including two up the Blackfoot River canyon, one across the river at West Riverside, another near Milltown and the closest one at the Bonner Post Office. He’ll have those maps on hand Monday.

Riutta said the community council will have its own map where residents can post dots where they live and identify how severe the noise is “so we can visually see what’s happening in the valley.”

“We hear about it every month but we don’t fully understand the impact, which is important,” she said. “We want to make sure what’s going on.”

In his cover story in the Jan. 25-Feb. 1 issue of the Missoula Independent, which like the Missoulian is a Lee Enterprises property, reporter Derek Brouwer traced the stealthy entrance of owner Sean Walsh and Project Spokane into Montana, as well as its rise last year into the upper echelons of the cryptocurrency mining world.

Cheap electricity rates and a cool climate are among the attractions of the area, Brouwer wrote. Recent announcements of facilities coming to Anaconda and Butte back that up. Energy rates are critical, because as a Jan. 21 New York Times report explained, the network of computers serving Bitcoin alone consumes as much energy each day as some medium-sized countries.

“And the network supporting Ethereum, the second-most valuable virtual currency, gobbles up another country’s worth of electricity each day,” the report said.

Brouwer said according to online documents, Project Spokane negotiated a deal with Energy Keepers Inc., the corporation owned by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes that operates the Se̓liš Ksanka Ql̓ispe̓ dam near Polson.

As cryptic as it is for many people, cryptocurrency is a growing but volatile market. Bitcoin enjoyed a record-setting 2017 in which the value of one Bitcoin rose to nearly $20,000 in December. That plummeted soon after, and last week dropped below $8,000.

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Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian

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